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Queen’s scientists bid to cure premature babies’ blindness using stem cells

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Scientists at Queen’s University are working to find a cure for a condition that can cause blindness in premature babies by using stem cells from their umbilical cords.

Two teams from the Centre for Vision and Vascular Science at the university are working to find different ways of preventing and treating the damage caused by Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP).

The condition can lead to premature babies losing their sight — putting the youngest, sickest and smallest babies in Northern Ireland at risk.

ROP is caused by blood vessels in the eye growing abnormally and causing damage to the retina — the light-sensitive inner lining of the eye.

Evidence suggests it develops in two stages. Premature babies have poorly developed lungs and need extra oxygen to help them breathe. However, the blood vessels that supply the eye’s light-sensitive retina are damaged by this additional oxygen and stop growing properly, meaning the retina does not get enough nutrients.

Eventually, in response to this damage new vessels grow in an attempt to rescue the retina, but they are abnormal and damage the eye, causing vision loss.

The first team, led by Dr Denise McDonald, has the aim of tackling the disease at a very early stage which would minimise the damaging effects of ROP.

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The second team, led by Dr Derek Brazil, is investigating whether stem cells from babies’ own umbilical cords might have the power to repair their damaged eyes and save their sight.

Dr Brazil and his colleagues were awarded a two-year grant by Action Medical Research to undertake this important work.

He said: “We hope our laboratory work will reveal whether vascular stem cells have the potential to repair damage to babies’ eyes and save their sight.”

Taking a different approach, Dr McDonald’s team are exploring a key step in the early stages of the disease process. While laser treatment tackles stage two of the disease process by stopping abnormal blood vessels from growing, by this stage the disease can already be quite severe.

Her team are looking for possible new treatments which will protect the retinal blood vessels from the effect of high oxygen which occurs in stage one.

Background

The retina is responsible for the initial formation of the visual image. To function, the retina requires a blood supply. The development of this blood supply starts at 16 weeks into a pregnancy and is completed by 36 weeks. If an infant is born prematurely, with the blood vessel development incomplete, they can develop Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP).


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