OC researchers testing vision-loss treatments by sending mice to space

Denise Dador Image
Monday, June 17, 2024
Sending mice to space can help humans with vision loss on Earth
Macular degeneration treatments can be tested at an accelerated rate by sending mice to space.

ANAHEIM, Calif. (KABC) -- As we get older, we all face the risk of age-related macular degeneration. There is no cure.

But local scientists are setting their sights on outer space and some high-flying mice. Researchers tell us how this accelerated research could help people on Earth.

Larry Wasielewski, who coaches Special Olympics athletes, has macular degeneration.

"A little blurriness, I didn't know if I needed glasses," he said.

While macular degeneration doesn't result in complete blindness, loss of central vision makes it hard to read, recognize faces, drive or perform other activities like bowling.

To keep his vision stable, "Mr. Waz," as his team calls him, gets regular treatment. It's pretty uncomfortable.

"Most patients with macular degeneration now are getting a monthly injection in the eye, going all the way through," said ophthalmologist Dr. Hema Ramkumar with Providence St. Jude Medical Center.

It's not a cure and there are no ways to prevent it. But Ramkumar developed a genetic therapy to continuously shield the retina from ongoing damage.

"It prevents the cells from dying with all that stress. So it should be something in the background as a consistent protection," she said.

On Earth, it would take decades of study to follow aging eyes. So Ramkumar set her sights on space with the very first gene-based eye experiment involving live animals ever sent to the cosmos.

"We found that we could generate some of the main features of macular degeneration in a one-month spaceflight trip to the space station," Ramkumar said.

SpaceX flew the mice to the space station in March. Twenty with the treatment and 20 without.

The experiment also involved another 40 mice staying on Earth - again 20 with treatment and 20 without.

The final results will take months, but after 30 days in space, Ramkumar says the treated mice were much more alert and bright compared to the controls.

"Sometimes activity is a sign of vision, but we'll find out soon," she said.

"The search for good medication to resolve the issues of macular degeneration. That's a plus!" said Wasielewski.

He's grateful for this out-of-this-world accelerated research. He hopes Earth-bound macular degeneration patients could soon benefit. If the experiment is a success, human trials could begin next year.

Anyone interested in keeping up with the research or to learn about ongoing trials for macular degeneration can learn more at the Oculogenex website or LinkedIn page.