Scientists Find Toxic Buildup in Eyes of Patients With Blinding Macular Degeneration

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September 30, 2021

Damaging DNA builds up in the eyes of patients with geographic atrophy, an untreatable, poorly understood form of age-related macular degeneration that causes blindness, new research from the University of Virginia School of Medicine reveals. Based on the discovery, the researchers think it may be possible to treat the disease with common HIV drugs – or an even safer alternative.

UVA’s Dr. Jayakrishna Ambati and his collaborators previously discovered that the harmful DNA, known as Alu cDNA, was manufactured in the cytoplasm. The new findings are believed to be the first time toxic Alu cDNA accumulation has been confirmed in patients in any disease.

The new findings offer insights into how geographic atrophy progresses over time. “Although we’ve known that geographic atrophy expands over time, we didn’t know how or why,” said Ambati, of UVA’s Department of Ophthalmology and Center for Advanced Vision Science. “Our finding in human eyes that the levels of toxic Alu cDNA are highest at the leading edge of the geographic atrophy lesion provides strong evidence that it is responsible for this expansion over time that leads to vision loss.”

About Age-Related Macular Degeneration

Geographic atrophy is an advanced form of age-related macular degeneration, a potentially blinding disease estimated to affect 200 million people around the world. The disease ultimately destroys vital cells in the retina, the light-sensing portion of the eye.

Ambati, a top expert in macular degeneration, and his colleagues found that this destruction is caused by the buildup of Alu DNA, which the researchers discovered floating in the cytoplasm of cells. That Alu DNA was being manufactured in cytoplasm came as a surprise, as DNA is typically thought to be contained within the cell nucleus.

As Alu DNA accumulates in the eye, it triggers harmful inflammation via a part of the immune system called the inflammasome. The researchers identified how this happens, discovering a previously unknown structural facet of Alu that triggers the immune mechanism that leads to the death of the vital retinal cells. 

That’s where HIV drugs called nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors, or NRTIs, could come in. The researchers’ new work in lab mice suggests these drugs, or safer derivatives known as Kamuvudines, could block the harmful inflammation and protect against retinal cell death.

“Over the last two decades, dozens of clinical trials for geographic atrophy that have targeted other pathways have failed,” Ambati said. “These findings from patient eyes provide a strong impetus for a new direction.”

Ambati says his latest findings offer further support for conducting clinical trials testing the drugs in patients with macular degeneration. A prior study of four different health insurance databases – encompassing more than 100 million patients over two decades – found that people taking NRTIs were almost 40% less likely to develop dry macular degeneration.

“Our findings from human eyes show that these toxic molecules, which activate the inflammasome, are most abundant precisely in the area of greatest disease activity,” Ambati said. “We are very hopeful that a clinical trial of Kamuvudines will be launched soon in geographic atrophy so that we can potentially offer a treatment for this devastating condition.” 

Findings Published

The researchers have published their findings in the scientific journal Science Advances. The research team consisted of Shinichi Fukuda, Siddharth Narendran, Akhil Varshney, Yosuke Nagasaka, Shao-bin Wang, Kameshwari Ambati, Ivana Apicella, Felipe Pereira Fowler, Tetsuhiro Yasuma, Shuichiro Hirahara, Reo Yasuma, Peirong Huang, Praveen Yerramothu, Ryan D. Makin, Mo Wang, Kirstie L. Baker, Kenneth M. Marion, Xiwen Huang, Elmira Baghdasaryan, Meenakshi Ambati, Vidya L. Ambati, Daipayan Banerjee, Vera L. Bonilha, Genrich V. Tolstonog, Ulrike Held, Yuichiro Ogura, Hiroko Terasaki, Tetsuro Oshika, Deepak Bhattarai, Kyung Bo Kim, Sanford H. Feldman, J. Ignacio Aguirre, David R. Hinton, Nagaraj Kerur, Srinivas R. Sadda, Gerald G. Schumann, Bradley D. Gelfand and Ambati. Ambati is the founder of iVeena Holdings, iVeena Delivery Systems and Inflammasome Therapeutics; a full list of the authors’ disclosures is included in the paper.

The research was made possible by UVA’s Strategic Investment Fund; the National Institutes of Health, grants DP1GM114862, R01EY022238, R01EY024068, R01EY028027, R01EY029799 and R01EY031039; the John Templeton Foundation, grant 60763; the DuPont Guerry III Professorship; and a gift from Mr. and Mrs. Eli W. Tullis, among other generous supporters. 

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Media Contact

Josh Barney

UVA Health