Sunday, January 6, 2013

Keeping your eyes healthy, and treating diseases too

Sometimes studies reveal biological mechanisms that have way more consequences that one could possibly imagine. Such is the case in a recent study conducted by American and Israeli scientists, showing that a protein that keeps eyes healthy may also be used to treat a variety of diseases. This includes cancer, but also problems that result from thrombosis and other diseases that are characterized by cardiovascular problems. Key to these findings appears to be a single protein.

The American and Israeli scientists conducted an animal study focused on the retina, which is the part of the eye that is used for the capture of light, eventually rendering vision possible. Two proteins, called Gas6 and Protein S were previously found to be associated in important processes in the retina, and the scientists showed that both of them are needed to keep the retina functioning properly. That means these two proteins are of interest in patients suffering from impaired vision: in many of such diseases, a dysfunctional retina plays a role.
Specifically, these two proteins govern a process known as phagocytosis, which is basically eating cells. This is a feature most often found in the immune system, to help clear out old and dysfunctional cells, but it is also needed in the retina. In our eyes, photoreceptors are required to capture light in order to enable vision, and these photoreceptors need to be 'pruned' occasionally: they continuously increase in length, and this is something that needs to be controlled. Cells responsible for phagocytosis need Gas6 and Protein S, the researchers showed.

Especially Protein S is interesting: not only does this protein help with keeping the retina, and thereby our vision, healthy, it actually has a more complicated role in the body. It also functions as a anticoagulant, which means it keeps the blood from clotting. As clotting is a problem in patients suffering from thrombosis, Protein S poses as an interesting therapeutic target; both for eye health as well as to counter cardiovascular diseases. The scientists even think the protein can be utilized for cancer treatment, as tumours require the development of new blood vessels in order to provide a steady supply of nutrients and oxygen. This process could be blocked by neutralizing the protein in the part of the vascular system that supplies a tumour. All in all this study shows that Protein S is very interesting in many respects.

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