Belfast research gives hope to diabetics at risk of blindness
Scientists at Queen's University Belfast are hoping to develop a novel approach that could save the sight of millions of diabetes sufferers around the world.
Work has already begun to try and come up with a technique to grow blood vessels in an aim to restore sight to people affected by the devastating disease.
Currently millions of diabetics are at risk of sight loss through diabetic retinopathy.
This is when high blood sugar causes the blood vessels in the eye to become blocked or to leak.
Failed blood flow harms the retina and leads to vision impairment, and if left untreated can cause blindness.
The QUB team hope their research will ultimately allow them to reverse this damage by using stem cells. The results could be available within five years.
Professor Alan Stitt, director of the Centre for Vision and Vascular Science at Queen's and lead scientist for the project, said: "The research has started already as a result of a grant from the European Union. We are one of a number of centres that are looking to find ways to address the damage caused by diabetes, and in particular we are looking at diabetic retinopathy.
"We are all using stem cells so we are looking at where we can get the best stem cells for the potential treatment.
"They can be taken from the bone marrow which is done under a local anaesthetic and is a fairly straight forward procedure.
"We are also looking at the possibility the stem cells can be taken from blood vessels which would make the procedure even easier, as it is less invasive for the patient."
Prof Stitt explained it is difficult to get enough stem cells so the team will grow more in a lab.
"This part can take anything between a week to two weeks depending on the number of cells required," he said.
The cells will then be used to grow blood vessels and the team will then examine whether these can be used to repair the damage done to the eyes by diabetes.
The research will go through a number of stages to ensure the technique is safe before any procedures are carried out on people.
Prof Stitt added: "Currently available treatments for diabetic retinopathy are not always satisfactory.
"They focus on end-stages of the disease, carry many side-effects and fail to address the root causes of the condition."
He said he believes the impact of the research could be profound for patients, because regeneration of damaged retina could prevent progression of diabetic retinopathy and reduce the risk of vision loss.