A drug created to treat heart disease could be used to fight blindness linked to diabetes, according to breakthrough research by Queen's University.
Patients with diabetic macular oedema are normally treated with injections of an expensive drug directly into the eyes every four to six weeks.
However, the breakthrough by teams at Queen's and University College London (UCL) demonstrated that a tablet version of a drug called Darapladib could reduce the need for injections.
In tests, it also provided protection against vision loss among a much wider group of people with diabetes than the current treatment.
The teams are now planning to launch a clinical trial to measure the effectiveness of the drug.
Queen's and UCL researchers, working in partnership with drugs company GlaxoSmithKline, found that Darapladib inhibited an enzyme found in people with diabetes that causes blood vessel leakage in the eye, which leads to swelling of the retina and severe vision loss.
The findings were published in the scientific journal Proceeding of the National Academy of Science USA.
Speaking about the breakthrough, Professor Alan Stitt, from the Centre for Experimental Medicine at Queen's University, explained that the work could be revolutionary.
"Diabetes-related blindness is caused by high blood sugar levels damaging the blood vessels in the retina," he said.
"We have found that an enzyme called Lp-PLA2 that metabolises fats in the blood and contributes to blood vessel damage and leakiness in the retina.
"The drug Darapladib acts as inhibitor of Lp-PLA2, and was originally developed for cardiovascular disease.
"Based on our breakthrough, we are now planning a clinical trial. If successful, we could soon see an alternative, pain-free and cost-effective treatment for diabetic-related blindness."
Diabetes UK Northern Ireland national director Dr David Chaney welcomed the development and said he looked forward to the clinical trial.
"Diabetic macular oedema is a major cause of vision loss during diabetic retinopathy, and we welcome the results of this study, which identifies a potential target and therapy for this serious condition," he added.
"We look forward to a future clinical trial to test its effectiveness in humans."
According to recent World Health Organisation estimates, 422 million people around the globe have diabetes.
In the UK, meanwhile, more people have the condition than cancer and dementia combined.
Diabetic macular oedema occurs in approximately 7% of patients with diabetes and is one of the most common causes of blindness in the western World.
In the UK, the complication is believed to cost the NHS more than £116m.
Experts predict a 50% rise in the number of people with diabetes by 2030.
Each year in Northern Ireland, around 3,000 people are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.
The Queen's research was published at the start of this year's official Diabetes Week.