SCIENTISTS at Trinity College Dublin have made a major breakthrough in the study of the eye disease Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD).
The condition is one of the most common forms of blindness in the ageing population.
The disease involves the loss of central vision and people suffering at advanced stages are unable to read, watch TV, drive, or use computers.
The researchers have found that a component of the immune system called IL-18, acts as a guardian of eyesight.
Scientists found that it does this by suppressing the production of damaging blood vessels behind the retina.
It was also shown in pre-clinical models that IL-18 can be administered in a non-invasive way. Such a treatment could be a major improvement on the current therapeutic options for patients, the university said.
"We were initially concerned that IL-18 might cause damage to the sensitive cells of the retina, because it is typically linked to inflammation," said Sarah Doyle, assistant professor in immunology.
"But surprisingly we found that low doses had no adverse effects on the retina and yet still suppressed abnormal blood vessel growth," said Ms Doyle.
There are two forms of AMD, dry and wet. Dry AMD accounts for the majority of cases, but wet AMD causes over 90pc of blindness associated with the disease.
Treatment options for wet AMD are currently limited to the end stages of the disease – regular injections of antibodies must be made directly into the eye to mop up a problematic molecule termed VEGF.
However, the Trinity scientists found that IL-18 can work as effectively as the current treatment when administered via a non-invasive intravenous injection in pre-clinical settings.
The research, published this week in the high-profile international journal 'Science Translational Medicine' was supported by Enterprise Ireland (EI).
It was also supported by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), the US-based charity Brightfocus Foundation, and major pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK).