Eye diseases and immune system link studied

Drawing shows areas of the eye

Emory Eye Center researchers are looking at the role of the immune system in the inflammation of the eye and the progression of eye diseases.

Santa Ono, PhD, professor of ophthalmology, Emory School of Medicine and researcher at the Emory Eye Center, and Emory senior vice provost for undergraduate education and academic affairs, and his team at the R. Howard Dobbs Jr. Ocular Immunology Lab, focus on the immune component of age-related macular degeneration (AMD), ocular cancer (melanoma and retinoblastoma) and ocular inflammation.

Santa J. Ono, PhD

Macular degeneration is the leading cause of sight impairment and blindness in older people. The macula, in the center of the retina, is the portion of the eye that allows for the perception of fine detail. AMD gradually destroys a person’s central vision, ultimately preventing reading, driving, and seeing objects clearly

In a recent article of Emory Magazine, Ono, an ocular immunologist, says, “If a person with AMD looks at graph paper, some of the lines will be wavy instead of straight. Certain parts of the image are no longer being transferred to the brain.”

Because AMD is not painful and the brain tends to fill in “gaps” in vision, people may not notice the change in their sight until significant loss has occurred. Two forms of AMD exist—wet, which is more serious and involves abnormal blood vessel growth under the macula, and dry, in which light-sensitive cells in the macula slowly break down.

“We’ve only recently realized there is an immune component of AMD, in that the immune system is attacking the photoreceptor cells—the light-capturing cells—in the body,” says Ono. “And the macula is the most photoreceptive rich part of the eye.”

A person who experiences this probably has an underlying genetic predisposition for autoimmune disease

His lab is investigating the role of immunity in the pathogenesis of not only AMD, but retinal degeneration in general. Various eye diseases may share an involvement of the immune system, Ono notes.

Ono says, “Emory research not only will help uncover how the immune system contributes to macular degeneration, but it will also pave the way for the development of new diagnostics that are at the heart of predictive medicine.”

Visit the NIH National Eye Institute for more information on AMD.

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