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Research is taking a new look at eye diseases

The University of Bradford is spearheading an international collaboration involving the UK, Spain and India, aimed at finding new treatments for debilitating eye diseases.

The research focuses on a class of enzymes known as aldehyde dehydrogenases (ALDHs). Dr Klaus Pors, from Bradford’s Institute of Cancer Therapeutics, first became interested in ALDHs due to their high expression in cancer cells. But he also wanted to explore their role in diseases of the eye, and a grant from the University’s International Development Fund has given him that opportunity.

Indian man looking into camera

Visual impairment is a problem around the world, but it disproportionally impacts low- and middle-income countries, where people have fewer opportunities for diagnosis and treatment,” says Dr Pors. “Overexposure to sunlight in countries closer to the Equator can also damage the eye and be an additional cause of disease. So finding an effective treatment for serious eye diseases has the potential to impact millions of people.

Dr Klaus Pors

Both common and rare

The study aims to find a solid link between ALDH imbalances and two diseases: ocular cicatricial pemphigoid (OCP) and diabetic retinopathy (DR). OCP is a rare but currently untreatable auto-immune condition which can be fatal. DR is a leading cause of vision loss across the world, with nearly half of people with Type 2 diabetes and 70 percent of those with Type 1 developing the disease after 10 years. Although DR is treatable, in low to middle income countries – where diabetes is on the rise – many people cannot travel to clinics for treatment.

The ultimate goal of the project is to develop a new therapeutic that can be easily applied locally in the form of eye drops to regulate abnormal ALDH expression and help to restore impaired vision.

The research will draw on earlier work by Dr Pors’s team which looked at the expression and function of selected members of the ALDH family, known as isoforms. In particular, the team has used computational and laboratory models to develop compounds that, with further optimisation, could offer a new way to treat ocular diseases by targeting these ALDH isoforms.

The new grant – awarded through an internal allocation of the Research England QR Global Challenges Research Fund - has enabled Dr Pors to team up with researchers at the Institute of Ophthalmology at University College London (UCL) and the LV Prasad Eye Institutes in Hyderabad and Bhubaneswar in India. This will enable optimised compounds to be investigated in more clinically relevant models using tissue from patients with OCP or DR.

From laboratory to patient

Elisabet Batlle Rocafort, the PhD student funded by the grant, has been designing and synthesising the new compounds in the laboratory at the University of Bradford, so that these can be evaluated for use in the research. She will spend time on placements at UCL and in India, working with researchers there to see if the new compounds have the hoped-for impact on the disease in laboratory experiments.

With support from Dr Abigail Locke, from Bradford’s School of Psychology, Elisabet will also carry out a survey of patients at the LV Prasad Eye Institute to gain a better understanding of their experience of living with DR and the challenges they face in accessing treatment.

Nevertheless, Elisabet is looking forward to starting work again when she can.

“What attracted me to this project was the multidisciplinary nature of the research, from basis laboratory science through to its application with patients,” she says. “It’s also great to be part of an international project, that brings in partners from around the world, to share expertise and knowledge.”

This PhD was awarded by the University of Bradford’s International Development Fund, which is funded through the Research England Quality-Related (QR) Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) allocation to support research that addresses the challenges faced by developing countries.

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