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Researchers at Mass. Eye and Ear Elucidate Cause of Death of Photoreceptor Cells in Retinitis Pigmentosa

Findings Suggest New Pathway as Potential Target for Treatment of Potentially Blinding Disease

Contact: Vannessa Carrington, Mass. Eye and Ear Public Affairs
Ph. 617-573-3341

Boston (Aug. 20, 2012) – Research conducted at the Angiogenesis Laboratory at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, has for the first time, identified the mode of death of cone photoreceptor cells in an animal model of retinitis pigmentosa (RP). This groundbreaking study, led by Demetrios G. Vavvas, M.D., Ph.D., (pictured, right) and including Joan W. Miller, M.D., Mass. Eye and Ear/Mass General Hospital Chief of Ophthalmology and Chair of Ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School, has further identified the receptor interacting protein (RIP) kinase pathway as a potential target for developing treatment for vision loss in patients with retinitis pigmentosa. The study is expected to be published the week of Aug. 20 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Early Edition at http://www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1206937109.

Retinitis pigmentosa is an inherited condition that causes irreversible vision loss due to the degeneration of photoreceptor cells in the eye called “rods” and “cones.” Rods are responsible for night vision, while cones are responsible for daylight and central vision. Vision loss from RP often begins with loss of night vision, due to death of rods, followed by loss of peripheral and central vision, due to death of rods and cones. Such vision loss can have a significant impact on people’s daily lives, such as affecting their ability to read or drive a car. RP affects more than 1 million people around the world.

Research conducted by Eliot L. Berson, M.D., of the Berman-Gund Laboratory for the Study of Retinal Degenerations at Mass. Eye and Ear, has shown that Vitamin A supplementation and an omega-3 rich diet can slow visual decline resulting from RP; they do not completely stop disease progression, however. For most patients, RP results in irreversible vision loss.

Previous studies have identified mutations in more than 50 genes that cause RP, but the mechanisms by which rods and cones die remain to be completely defined. Since many of the genes associated with RP produce proteins that are used specifically in rod cells, it is still a puzzle why and how cones, which in some cases do not use the mutant proteins, die after rods degenerate. Using an animal model of RP, the investigators studied whether RIP kinase mediated necrosis is involved in the death of photoreceptor cells, finding for the first time that it is involved in cone degeneration and that a deficiency of RIP kinase reduced cone loss. Moreover, the study found that treatment with a drug that inhibits RIP kinase significantly delayed cone cell death and preserved cone photoreceptors.

“Though the precise mechanisms involved in RIP kinase inducing necrosis remain unknown, our finding that necrosis results in cone cell death puts us one step closer to understanding this disease and, more importantly, moves us one step closer to being able to provide novel therapies to millions of patients with vision loss,” said Dr. Vavvas.

About Massachusetts Eye and Ear
Mass. Eye and Ear clinicians and scientists are driven by a mission to find cures for blindness, deafness and diseases of the head and neck.  After uniting with Schepens Eye Research Institute in 2011, Mass. Eye and Ear in Boston became the world's largest vision and hearing research center, offering hope and healing to patients everywhere through discovery and innovation.  Mass. Eye and Ear is a Harvard Medical School teaching hospital and trains future medical leaders in ophthalmology and otolaryngology, through residency as well as clinical and research fellowships.  Internationally acclaimed since its founding in 1824, Mass. Eye and Ear employs full-time, board-certified physicians who offer high-quality and affordable specialty care that ranges from the routine to the very complex.  U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Hospitals Survey” has consistently ranked the Mass. Eye and Ear Departments of Otolaryngology and Ophthalmology as top five in the nation.  For more information about life-changing care and research, or to learn how you can help, please visit MassEyeAndEar.org.