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Research Updates

Drug “Antabuse” Could Potentially Restore Vision in People with Retinal Disorders

by Jaime Rodriguez

Researchers from the University of California (UC) Berkeley recently found that a drug that has been used to “wean alcoholics off of drinking” can help to improve vision in mice with retinal degeneration. This breakthrough in mice may help to restore sight in people with retinitis pigmentosa (RP) and possibly other eye conditions, such as age-related macular degeneration. A group of researchers, led by Richard Kramer, UC professor of molecular and cell biology, had previously shown the effects of the chemical retinoic acid, which is produced in the eyes as the retina’s light-sensing cells die over time. As this chemical builds up, it triggers hyperactivity in certain retinal cells, interfering with the ability to process visual information, “obscuring vision.” In recent experiments, Kramer and collaborator Michael Goard, who directs a lab at UC Santa Barbara (UCSB), discovered that disulfiram, also called Antabuse, a drug that has been used to treat alcoholism, contains enzymes that decrease the production of retinoic acid. “Both the behavioral results and the brain imaging results suggest that the drugs improve vision and not just light detection.” Kramer speculates that retinoic acid also affects vision in people, although experiments to check the chemical’s presence would be too invasive and have not been conducted with humans. The use of disulfiram, which has Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval, “could establish that link.” Researchers plan to partner with ophthalmologists to begin a clinical trial of disulfiram with a small group of adults with advanced RP, who retain some vision. This work has been supported by grants to Kramer from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Foundation for Fighting Blindness, and grants to Gourd from NIH and the National Science Foundation. For more information, please read the Berkeley News article, “Antabuse may help revive vision in people with progressive blinding disorders.”

Using Ultrasound Waves to Treat Vision Loss

With the increase in age-related eye diseases and conditions due to the aging population, researchers are exploring innovative modes of treatment. Medical experts project that it’s likely that many of the growing cases of vision loss will be caused by retinal degenerative diseases, such as macular degeneration. This presents an unmet need for new technological solutions to treat vision loss. Currently, through electronic technology, ophthalmologists stimulate retinal neurons by “implanting electrode devices inside the eye,” which “requires expensive and invasive surgery.” Researchers from the USC Viterbi School of Engineering Department of Biomedical Engineering are investigating a “non-surgical solution to restore sight by using another of the five senses.” The procedure, now being studied in animals, involves using ultrasound stimulation. Ultrasound waves generate mechanical pressures that activate neurons in rats, sending sound waves to the retina, located in the back of the eye. When the ultrasound waves are projected in a pattern, such as a letter, the rat’s brain being examined was able to detect a similar pattern. The research team, supported by the National Eye Institute (NEI), has applied for additional funding to advance their work and test the approach on non-human primates followed by human clinical trials. To read more about this promising research, visit the USC Viterbi report titled Ultrasound Gave Us Our First Baby Pictures. Can It Also Help the Blind See?