Breakthrough as researchers find link between cholesterol and sight loss

New research published this week has linked cholesterol levels to sight loss – showing that simple eye drops could be used to treat the UK’s biggest cause of blindness, age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

Although the research is in its early stages, the breakthrough gives hope to millions of people suffering from inherited and age-related blindness.

Tests on mice and humans, conducted at the Washington University School of Medicine and published in the journal Cell Metabolism, showed that immune cells became destructive when they were clogged with fats. High levels of cholesterol could affect the immune system and lead to macular degeneration.

Led by Dr Rajendra Apte, the study focused on the role of macrophages, a part of the immune system, in the transition from the dry to the wet form of AMD.  Researchers found that the role of macrophages changed and they triggered the production of new blood vessels.

“Instead of being protective, they accelerate the disease, but we didn’t understand why they switched to become the bad cells,” Apte told the BBC.

The research showed that older macrophages are less able to ‘eat’ fatty deposits and expel them back into the blood, so they become bloated. This causes inflammation, which in turn leads to the creation of new blood vessels.

“Based on our findings, we need to investigate whether vision loss caused by macular degeneration could be prevented with cholesterol-lowering eye drops or other medications that might prevent the build-up of lipids beneath the retina,” said Dr Apte.

The RNIB‘s Clara Eaglen commented: “This new research is very interesting as it shows that cholesterol-lowering drugs could be used to prevent thousands of people losing their sight unnecessarily from conditions such as AMD  – the biggest cause of sight loss in the UK.

“The more aggressive of the two forms, wet AMD, can take your central vision in as little as three months if left untreated.

“Clearly this research is still at an early stage but it will be exciting to watch how it progresses and at some point cholesterol-lowering eye drops may become part of a growing army of treatments for sight-threatening eye conditions.”

But how can people tell if they are at risk of AMD?

Eyecare professionals can install the MPS II macular pigment screener in their practice and offer a fast, simple and reliable test to people worried they may be at risk of developing the disease.

If further research provides more evidence of the link between cholesterol and sight loss, optometrists will be able to offer eye drops to their patients, along with advice on changes to diet and lifestyle which can help combat the disease, and supplements of  lutein, which have been proven to be effective in increasing macular pigment density in patients and thus halting the progress of AMD.

Find out more information on the MPS II and how you can find your nearest distributor.

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