Vision is a valuable asset; one many of us couldn’t imagine living without. Most people who lose their vision manage to adapt, although the change can be life-altering. Researchers have labored to find ways to restore lost eyesight, but until recently, the prospects weren't great. But research into some other animals’ ability to regenerate lost limbs and other tissues has led to new insights into human genetics. Gene therapy could make lost eyesight a fading memory. Even more, we may have had the capacity to heal the damage ourselves all along.
Zebrafish might look pretty dull, but they have an incredible superpower: They can regenerate damaged retinal tissue. Researchers recently looked closer at the genetic code responsible for this ability, and — get this: they found humans also have it. They published their findings in Science.
The retina is the thin layer in the back of the eye that contains light-sensing receptors, which send signals to the brain that we interpret as three-dimensional images. If the retina becomes damaged, vision becomes impaired or altogether lost. In humans and other mammals, once part of the retina is rendered useless, its function is gone for good. Or is it?
Researchers compared functioning and healing timelines between zebrafish, chicks and mice, which, like humans, have the genetic code to make retinal repairs, only it’s switched off. In the experiment, researchers simulated light and toxin damage to the retinas of all three animals. They found that mechanisms related to the repair genes become inactive in mouse eyes in response to damage, whereas damage to the eyes of the zebrafish triggers active repairs. Chicks show some regenerative capabilities, although theirs is limited.
Manipulation of compounds in the body that regulate this type of regeneration could allow humans to take advantage of that dormant gene, now that we know we have it. If researchers can develop drugs that stimulate the repair triggers in animals like zebrafish, treatment for retinal damage could soon be as easy as popping a pill — can you imagine? Even more, these findings could open the doors for exploration into other ways to harness nerve regeneration in humans, once we find the genes responsible.
Vision loss is a big deal. Advances to boost repair could be game-changing, allowing some people to see again, naturally, without the need for surgery. More research is necessary in this area, obviously, but if all goes well, retina-related vision loss could soon be a thing of the past. And once we learn to stimulate these genes in ways that let them express their full potential, who knows what other regenerative genes we might have.
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