Dr Mei Chen at Queen’s University Belfast is investigating the role of inflammation, specifically a molecule SIGIRR, in causing dry age-related macular degeneration (AMD). This is a PhD project jointly funded by National Eye Research Centre and Fight for Sight. 

Age related macular degeneration (AMD) is the leading cause of blindness in the aged population in developed countries. There are two types of AMD: dry AMD (also called geographic atrophy, GA) and wet AMD (neovascularisation). Dry AMD accounts for over 80% of AMD incidence, and currently there is no treatment for it.

Through years of research, inflammation has been discovered as an important factor that damages the macula in AMD, and properly controlled inflammation may be able to slow down or halt AMD progression. Inflammation is the response of the defence system of our body to take care of us and keep us in order. Too much inflammation can cause damage to surrounding tissues, and too little is ineffective in protection. To overcome this problem, inflammation needs to be carefully controlled. Within the defence system, some molecules are produced to escalate the inflammatory process, whereas others are generated to cool down or turn off the process.

One molecule that can turn off the inflammatory process is called SIGIRR. Researchers have found that without SIGIRR, animals with cancer, asthma or arthritis have uncontrolled inflammation and more severe symptoms. By contract, higher levels of SIGIRR reduces inflammation. Eyes donated from dry AMD patients have been found to have less SIGIRR compared with eyes from healthy donors. Previous research suggests that insufficient SIGIRR may be a key reason for uncontrolled inflammation in AMD. Therefore enhancing SIGIRR expression could be a novel approach for immune therapy.

This study will aim to find put why the loss of SIGIRR leads to uncontrolled inflammation in AMD, and whether the development of AMD can be delayed or halted by enhancing the SIGIRR through gene therapy.

Currently, there is no therapy for dry AMD. The study hopes to demonstrate whether targeting SIGIRR by gene therapy is beneficial in AMD. This might lead to the discovery of novel biomarkers to predict the progression of the disease, and effective approaches to treat dry AMD.

Read more about the causes and symptoms of AMD here.

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