Glaucoma, a disease that afflicts nearly 70 million people worldwide, remains a significant mystery. Little is known about the origins of the disease, which damages the retina and optic nerve and can lead to blindness. A new study from MIT and Massachusetts Eye and Ear has found that glaucoma may, in fact, be an autoimmune disorder. In a study of mice, the researchers showed that the body's own T-cells are responsible for the progressive retinal degeneration seen in glaucoma. Furthermore, these T-cells appear to be primed to attack retinal neurons as the result of previous interactions with bacteria (and other microflora) that normally live in our body. The discovery suggests that it could be possible to develop new treatments for glaucoma by blocking this autoimmune activity, the researchers say. "This opens a new approach to prevent and treat glaucoma," says Dr. Jianzhu Chen, an MIT Professor of Biology, a member of MIT's Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, and one of the senior authors of the study, which was published online on August 10, 2018 in Nature Communications. The open-access article is titled “Commensal Microflora-Induced T Cell Responses Mediate Progressive Neurodegeneration in Glaucoma.” Dr. Dong Feng Chen, an Associate Professor of Ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School and the Schepens Eye Research Institute of Massachusetts Eye and Ear, is also a senior author of the study. The paper's lead authors are Massachusetts Eye and Ear researchers Dr. Huihui Chen, Dr. Kin-Sang Cho, and Dr. T.H. Khanh Vu. One of the biggest risk factors for glaucoma is elevated pressure in the eye, which often occurs as people age and the ducts that allow fluid to drain from the eye become blocked.
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