Breakthrough gene therapy prevents retinal degeneration

August 16, 2010
The image on left shows damage (pink) to the retina. The image on right shows that POD GDNF nanoparticles protected the retina from damage. Credit: Image courtesy of Rajendra Kumar-Singh, Tufts University School of Medicine

In one of only two studies of its kind, a study from researchers at Tufts University School of Medicine and the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences at Tufts demonstrates that non-viral gene therapy can delay the onset of some forms of eye disease and preserve vision. The team developed nanoparticles to deliver therapeutic genes to the retina and found that treated mice temporarily retained more eyesight than controls. The study, published online in advance of print in Molecular Therapy, brings researchers closer to a non-viral gene therapy treatment for degenerative eye disorders.

"Our work shows that it is possible to attain therapeutic results using non-viral gene delivery methods, specifically, nanoparticles. Nanoparticles, which are small enough to penetrate cells and stable enough to protect DNA, are capable of preventing death and preserving vision," said senior author Rajendra Kumar-Singh, PhD, associate professor of ophthalmology at Tufts University School of Medicine (TUSM) and member of the genetics; neuroscience; and cell, molecular, and developmental biology program faculties at the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences at Tufts.

"The most common approach to gene therapy involves using a virus to deliver DNA to cells. While viruses are very efficient carriers, they can prompt immune responses that may lead to inflammation, cancer, or even death. Non-viral methods offer a safer alternative, but until now, efficiency has been a significant barrier," said Kumar-Singh.

In a model simulating the progression of human , the researchers treated mice with nanoparticles carrying a gene for GDNF (Glial Cell Line-Derived Neurotrophic Factor), a protein known to protect the photoreceptor cells in the eye. Retinas treated with the GDNF-carrying nanoparticles showed significantly less photoreceptor than controls. Preservation of these cells resulted in significantly better eyesight in the treatment group seven days after treatment, compared to controls.

The protection conferred by the GDNF-carrying nanoparticles was temporary, as tests fourteen days after treatment showed no difference in eyesight between treated mice and controls.

"The next step in this research is to prolong this protection by adding elements to the DNA that permit its retention in the cell. Bringing forth a more potent and enduring result will move us closer to clinical application of non-viral ," said Kumar-Singh.

AMD, which results in a loss of sharp, central vision, is the number one cause of visual impairment among Americans age 60 and older. Retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited condition characterized by night blindness and loss of peripheral vision, affects approximately 1 in 4,000 individuals in the United States.

Explore further: Polymers hold promise for safer gene delivery

More information: Read SP, Cashman SM, Kumar-Singh R. Molecular Therapy. "POD Nanoparticles Expressing GDNF Provide Structural and Functional Rescue of Light-Induced Retinal Degeneration in an Adult Mouse." Published online August 10, 2010, doi: 10.1038/mt.2010.167

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