An uncontrolled immune response, a lack of affective treatments and a failure to predict who will develop further complications are key features shared with conditions that affect the surface of the eye, in particular the cornea and ocular surface including the autoimmune condition Sjögren’s Syndrome, ocular graft versus host disease and complications of corneal transplantation.
In these conditions the cells of the immune system begin to travel in increased numbers to the glands of the body which produce tears, here the immune cells release large amounts of soluble protein mediators or messenger molecules, that normally signal the immune system to attack bacteria, virus or damaged cells. These molecules cause inflammation and fibrosis of the glands which ultimately stop them from working leading to severe dry eye symptoms in addition to negatively affecting patients quality of life.
Recently a network of regulators was discovered that controls inflammation and the balance of the immune response. These regulators are small pieces of genetic material termed ‘micro RNAs’. We compared eye samples from patients with Sjögren’s Syndrome to samples from healthy individuals and found that those with the Sjögren’s had abnormal levels of a certain microRNA molecules that control eye inflammation. In cells grown in the laboratory we can return these signals to halt or stop the damage caused to the eye by the cells of the immune system. We now have a list of microRNA controllers that are present in different amounts in patient cells. This information can help diagnose patients and make new, more effective drugs to treat the disease.
Our research programme will take the information learned from our studies of Sjögren’s Syndrome and apply them to understanding what is causing the immune system to improperly function in individuals receiving bone marrow transplant or corneal transplants, potentially leading to new treatments.
Partnerships with Sjögren’s patients have shown us the need to increase awareness of the condition as well increasing education among the public and healthcare professionals.
In collaboration with the Stephen Comiskey, Medical Photographer Royal Victoria Eye & Ear Hospital we produced a video in which Dr Emily Greenan an Ophthalmologist in the Royal Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital, describes the research she is involved in as part of her PhD with RCSI, University of Medicine and Health Sciences.
Click this link to hear how research can promote real change and lead to improvements in the lives of those living with Sjögrens