Many veterans have glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration (AMD), or vision loss caused by damage to the retina, the back layer of the eyeball where specialized cells detect light. In some cases, this damage is progressive and leads to blindness. While some of these conditions can be treated with varying degrees of success, there are no cures for these disorders. Dr. Jeffrey Boatright’s laboratory at the Atlanta VA Health Care System is working to develop new drugs that protect these specialized retinal cells from damage to reduce vision loss.
The light-sensing cells of the retina require large amounts of energy for their normal functions. This makes these cells sensitive to damage in almost all retinal diseases. Dr. Boatright’s colleagues previously found that a naturally-occurring bile acid called tauroursodeoxycholic acid (abbreviated TUDCA), protects the energy producing mitochondria inside the cell. In collaboration with Dr. Machelle Pardue (also of the Atlanta VA), Dr. Boatright’s lab discovered that simple abdominal injection of TUDCA protects the light-sensing cells of the retina in experimental animals. Because of these findings, TUDCA is now being studied in patients enrolled in a clinical trial led by Dr. Boatright.
But the Boatright lab did not stop here. They are also examining the ability of forms of Vitamin B3 to increase energy production in light-sensing cells of the retina. These vitamin-like compounds stimulate energy production to promote cell regeneration. Initial experiments in animals indicate that these compounds protect the retina and preserve vision. As a result, trials of vitamin-like compounds are being planned for human subjects. Collectively, these studies from Dr. Boatright and his colleagues indicate that studying how cells in the eye are damaged by common disorders can reveal new ways to effectively prevent retinal cells from injury and reduce vision loss.
These projects are supported by VA and FAVER funding.