By Levi Wolters
A team of four eye researchers at Kansas State University is examining how cells communicate. They hope to prevent the spread of damaged cells that, in some cases, leads to blindness.
Delores Takemoto, professor of biochemistry, said the team's research is concentrating on the gap junctions made of proteins that connect the cells in the eye, allowing the passing of communication.
"All of the communication that's going to occur in the eye has got to go, not through a blood cell, but through gap junctions," Takemoto said. "With two different cells trying to communicate, normally cells have a blood supply to send nutrients from one cell to the other. For cells that don't have that, you have to have one cell having little junctions of proteins connecting to the other cell, and things will pass from one cell to another, allowing communication back and forth."
If one cell becomes damaged, the gap junction acts as a bridge to its neighboring cell, damaging it as well, Takemoto said. The damage continues to spread, leading to severe eye damage if the gap junctions are not closed off.
"What we're working on is ways to close that gap junction and prevent that spread," Takemoto said. "What you have to do is design chemicals that will hit those proteins and make them close instead of having them open. There's two ways you can do that: You can either make the gap junction close, or you can pull the proteins away from the cells so they're not communicating."
Takemoto said research is currently being done to develop a chemical that would stop the spread of damaged cells, but the main concern for scientists is the process of injecting the chemical into the eye without causing damage to the retina.
"There is no blood supply that's common in the eye," she said. "The eye and the brain are what we call a blood-brain barrier or a blood-ocular barrier. The blood supply in the rest of the body doesn't mix with the blood supply in the rest of the brain or the eye -- they're completely separate. If you were to inject something into somebody's bloodstream, it would never get into the eye.
"One of the things we're working on is a delivery mechanism to put things into the eye by injecting them," Takemoto said. "Any time you stick a needle into the eye, you can get retinal detachment. They have to continue to find ways to get things past that blood-ocular barrier. That's the big thing in eye research right now. We know how to treat things; it's just getting it into the eye without having to inject it."
The research is funded by two grants from the National Eye Institute. While the team, in the past several years, has published its studies on the metabolic issues concerning the prevention of continual cell damage, Takemoto said its primary focus has shifted to the injection methods.
"I think it would be extremely big to get something into the eye by the injection of something intravenously," she said. "Overall, there's not much being done right now on delivery to cross the blood-ocular level. That's really in its infant technology right now. So, I think it would be very significant if we can get this done."
Team members also include K-State's Harriet Davidson, professor of clinical sciences; John Tomich, professor of biochemistry; and Larry Takemoto, university distinguished professor of biology.