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Study: Treatment developed to dramatically slow progression of blindness-causing retinal diseases


Researchers have found that the interactive release of anti-inflammatory drugs depend on the level of retinal degeneration. A customized treatment approach is expected to be developed to reduce patients’ inconvenience of having multiple shots.

(Image Credit: AdobeStock/kkolosov)

(Image Credit: AdobeStock/kkolosov)

Researchers at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST) have incorporated anti-inflammatory drugs into a hydrogel to suppress inflammation in the retina and effectively deliver the drugs to the inflamed area.

The work is led by Maesoon Im, PhD, of the Brain Science Institute, Seung Ja Oh, PhD, of Kyung Hee University, and Kangwon Lee, PhD, of Seoul National University.

Currently, there is no effective cure for age-related macular degeneration or retinitis pigmentosa, and one of the treatments is to inject anti-inflammatory drugs into the eye to slow down the degree of retinal damage. However, the researchers pointed out that these injections only work for as long as the drug remains in the eye, requiring patients to visit a clinic for intraocular injections every 4 to 12 weeks, depending on how long the effect of the drug lasts.1

The researchers used a substance that inhibits the inflammatory factor EZH2, which contributes to retinal degeneration, along with an anti-inflammatory agent. When mice with retinal degeneration were injected with the anti-inflammatory drug, the progression of retinal degeneration slowed down.

According to the KIST news release, the team was able to develop a hydrogel that slowly degrades upon encountering the enzyme cathepsin, which is typically overexpressed in inflammatory environments, to deliver anti-inflammatory drugs. When the team's drug-loaded inflammation-responsive hydrogel was injected into the eyes of mice suffering from retinal degeneration, inflammatory factors in the retina were reduced to approximately 6.1%.1

Schematic illustration of syringe-injectable inflammation-responsive hydrogel for suppression of inflammatory microglia for preventing photoreceptor death in retinitis pigmentosa. (Image credit: Korea Institute of Science and Technology)

Schematic illustration of syringe-injectable inflammation-responsive hydrogel for suppression of inflammatory microglia for preventing photoreceptor death in retinitis pigmentosa. (Image credit: Korea Institute of Science and Technology)

Moreover, according to the news release, the team also found that the protective effect on photoreceptor cells, which are known to be destroyed by retinal degeneration, was about four times higher than in the control group, effectively delaying vision loss.

The researchers noted the hydrogel is a hyaluronic acid-based substance with similar mechanical and optical properties to the vitreous humor of the eye. It allows for different rates of hydrogel degradation in each patient, minimizing the need for repeated injections. This newly developed technology is expected to reduce the economic burden and the risk of accidents during outpatient visits for patients with difficulty in mobility due to visual impairment. Additionally, for patients in the early stages of symptoms, reducing the frequency of hospital visits can alleviate inconvenience in daily life.

"For future commercialization, we plan to digitize the amount of drug and hydrogel used, as well as the treatment period, according to the progression of the disease. We also intend to assess the long-term stability of the drug delivery system," Im said in the news release.

Seung Ja Oh, PhD, noted in the news release the research could open the door in other retinal diseases.

“In addition to the retinal degenerative diseases, we will investigate inflammation levels in other retinal diseases to see if our inflammation-responsive drug delivery system would work on those conditions," Seung Ja Oh said in the news release.

According to the news release, the research was funded, in part, by the Ministry of Science and ICT through the KIST Major Project and Young and Mid-Career Researchers, the Excellent Young Researcher Support Project, the Brain Function Identification and Regulation Technology Development Project, and the Public Benefit Medical Technology Research Project of the Ministry of Health and Welfare.

1. Kim, H., Roh, H., Kim, SH. et al. Effective protection of photoreceptors using an inflammation-responsive hydrogel to attenuate outer retinal degeneration. npj Regen Med 8, 68 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41536-023-00342-y
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