Researchers discover a protein that stimulates optic nerve regeneration

Key Takeaways

  • A protein which can regenerate cells of the optic nerve has been discovered.
  • The protein could be a potential treatment for optic nerve damage.

Blindness and vision impairment due to optic nerve damage affect more than 3 million people in the U.S. alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The most common reason for that damage is glaucoma, a family of eye diseases that affect the flow of liquid in the eye, eventually damaging cells whose processes, called the optic nerve, connect the retina to the brain. These cells don’t grow back after being damaged, leading to permanent vision loss.

A newly investigated regeneration factor could change that, University of Connecticut researchers report in the May 2024 issue of Experimental Neurology. The team has shown that a protein called nuclear factor erythroid 3 (Nfe3), which is unique to nerves originating in the retina but is not normally present in adult nerve cells, can stimulate regrowth of optic nerve cells. The researchers took adult mice with crushed optic nerves and stimulated Nfe3 production using a gene therapy.  In response, individual nerve fibers in the mice’s damaged optic nerves began to regrow significantly.  Nfe3 is more promising than previously known regeneration factors, which tended to cause inflammation and risk of tumors. 

The next step is to observe the regenerating nerve cells for several months to see if they eventually reconnect to the brain, a necessary step to restore sight. If they do reconnect to the brain, Nfe3 could truly be a potential treatment for cases of optic nerve damage. Ephraim Trakhtenberg, who led the research, said this opens a new realm of research which could help glaucoma and other types of nerve damage. It could potentially be prescribed as a preventative, to stop visual loss in diseases that slowly damage the retinal neurons and the optic nerve. If the factor is successful in repairing the optic nerve, it might also be useful in treating paralysis and other forms of nerve damage in the brain and spinal cord.

Source:   Kim Krieger, University of Connecticut, Medical Xpress, March 26, 2024; see source article