Providing the Ability to See Near-Infrared Light as a Treatment for Retinal Degeneration

Researchers here propose an interesting approach to restoring vision in cases of age-related macular degeneration. They are using a gene therapy targeted at photoreceptor cells to provide these cells with the ability to be stimulated by near-infrared light. In tests in mice, this appears to function as intended, though it is always challenging to assess the quality of vision (as opposed to its presence or absence) in such experiments.

The main cause of blindness in industrialized countries is the degeneration of photoreceptors, including age-related macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa. During the progression of degenerative photoreceptor diseases, light-sensitive and light-insensitive photoreceptor regions in the retina coexist. For example, macular degeneration patients lose vision in the central portion of their retina but retain peripheral eyesight.

Scientists have now succeeded in developing a new therapeutic approach to restore light sensitivity in degenerating retina without negatively affecting remaining vision. They were inspired by species found in nature, such as bats and snakes, that can localize near-infrared light emitted by the bodies of their preys. This is done by using heat-sensitive ion channels which are able to detect the heat of the near-infrared light. This enables the bats and snakes to superimpose thermal and visual images in the brain and thus react to their environment with greater precision.

To equip retinal photoreceptors with near-infrared sensitivity, the researchers devised a three-component system. The first component contains engineered DNA that ensures that the gene coding for the heat-sensitive channel is only expressed in photoreceptors. The second component is a gold nanorod, a small particle, that efficiently absorbs near-infrared light. The third component is an antibody that ensures strong binding between the heat-sensitive channel expressed in photoreceptors and the gold nanorods that locally capture near-infrared light and locally release heat.

The researchers first tested their system in engineered mice with retinal degeneration, confirming that near-infrared light effectively excites photoreceptors and that this signal is transmitted to retinal ganglion cells, the latter representing the output of the retina towards higher visual centers in the brain. Next, they showed that stimulating the mouse eye with near-infrared light is also picked up by neurons in a brain area that is important for conscious vision, the primary visual cortex. They also designed a behavioral test in which untreated blind mice were not able to use near-infrared stimulation to learn a simple task whereas blind mice treated with the three-component system could perform the task related to near-infrared stimulus.



If there are still photoreceptor cells alive why they are not sensitive to the regular wavelenghts?

Posted by: cuberat at June 11th, 2020 12:19 PM

Sounds like something DARPA would be interested in.

Posted by: gwood at June 11th, 2020 9:11 PM

I'm interested in this because I have myopic macular degeneration. However, what would the quality of colors be in human eyes that had this procedure done? Would gene therapy need to be done in order to edit out future complications progressing with the DNA?

Posted by: Donna at June 24th, 2020 12:41 PM

There is something wrong with the terminology of this article that makes it difficult to know what they are really doing. They refer to near-infrared light many times but they talk about predators seeing light from "the bodies of their prey". Warm blooded mammals emit far infrared light (around 10 microns wavelength). Near infrared light is just slightly longer wavelength than red light and is generally thought of as the 700 to 1000 nanometer wavelength range. Near IR is not emitted by warm objects. So which is it, near or far?

Posted by: Dean at June 24th, 2020 5:44 PM
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