Scientists at Australia's Monash University have shown for the first time that regulatory T cells (aka Tregs) exist in the human retina. This finding could have a significant impact on finding a cure for diabetic retinopathy and retinopathy of prematurity (ROP).
Dr. Jennifer Wilkinson-Berka, a professor in Monash's Department of Diabetes, was the lead researcher on this study. Her goal in this research was to find a better way to treat ROP in babies.
ROP is serious eye disease that often affects the blood vessels of extremely small babies born prematurely. The only way for doctors to save the child's vision is using a laser surgery procedure that literally burns the retinal blood vessels. While this method gets rid of most of the ROP symptoms, it also destroys many healthy eye cells.
After many screenings, Dr. Wilkinson-Berka discovered the presence of Tregs in the retina. These Tregs are helpful white blood cells that can fight off numerous diseases.
Much like the blood-brain barrier, there's a powerful membrane barrier between the blood and the eye tissue. Because of this barrier, many scientists in the past believed it was impossible for Tregs to get inside the eye. Dr. Wilkinson-Berka and her team clearly showed that this barrier isn't as impervious as once thought.
The researchers at Monash University took this study one step further by testing ROP and retinal Tregs in animal models. Study authors note that the animals with higher Treg counts were better able to fend off ROP symptoms than those not injected with additional Tregs.
This research is incredibly important for helping doctors around the world treat the growing number of children born with ROP. Some ophthalmologists say we're now facing the "third epidemic of ROP" since premature babies around the world are getting smaller.
Experts say a premature baby that weighs 3.3 pounds has between a 50 to 70 percent chance of being born with ROP. Children who only weight 1.6 pounds at birth have an almost 100 percent chance of getting ROP.
To better understand how these Tregs can help babies with ROP, Dr. Wilkinson-Berka will conduct a clinical trial in the near future. This trial will take place in conjunction with Murdoch Children's Research Institute and the Royal Children's Hospital.
Although the main focus of Dr. Wilkinson-Berka's research was ROP, she also says this knowledge can help people with diabetic retinopathy. Both ROP and diabetic retinopathy adversely affect the blood vessels in the retina.
Australian doctors Lyndell Lim and Sanjeewa Wickremasinghe will test to see whether retinal Tregs can help diabetic retinopathy in clinical trials. These studies will begin in October at both the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital and Centre for Eye Research Australia (CERA) as well as the Central Clinical School.
Wilkinson-Berka told reporters she believes her findings can help complement current treatment strategies for ROP and diabetic retinopathy. She hopes that this "immune system therapy" will soon be approved for patients around the world.
Anyone interested in reading more about Dr. Wilkinson-Berka's research should check out the latest edition of Nature Communication. This study is entitled, "Foxp3+ Tregs are recruited to the retina to repair pathological angiogenesis."