Could a new treatment for diabetic eye disease be on the horizon?


By Delhi Kalwan, SciTech Deputy Editor

Academics from the University of Bristol have contributed to the development of a potential treatment for Diabetic Macular Oedema (DMO); an eye condition affecting more than 20 million diabetes patients. This potentially game-changing drug has now reached the clinical trial stage and will be tested on 48 patient volunteers.

DMO is one of the lesser-known diseases that can affect diabetic patients, even though it is the leading cause of blindness amongst this group of people. DMO occurs when blood vessels begin to leak fluid into the retina of the eye. This causes swelling, which can lead to symptoms such as alterations in colour vision and blurring of sight. If left untreated the individual may suffer from complete vision-loss.

Current treatments for DMO involve intravitreal injections, meaning the drug, which is aimed to relieve swelling, is administered via a needle directly into the eye. Alongside the fact that this disease is estimated to affect roughly 21 million people globally, it is no wonder that new treatment routes are being explored in the hopes of finding alternative drugs that are just – if not more – effective.

The new trials could open up the possibility of treatment in the form of eye drops, which is unheard of for DMO patients | Unsplash / Liam Welch

New treatment routes are being explored in hopes of finding alternative drugs that are just as – if not more – effective, in order to more comfortably treat the 21 million people affected by this disease globally.

Over the last 15 years, countless studies have contributed to our current knowledge of how DMO may occur. The work that has been conducted by academics, including Professor Dave Bates (formerly of Bristol’s School of Physiology and Pharmacology), has culminated in the discovery of a potential new treatment.

In the field of pharmacology, a drug such as this is known as a ‘lead compound’. During a randomised multicentre trial, currently taking place in Australia, patients may either be given a placebo or a dose of the lead compound (called EXN 407). This will help researchers determine whether the drug is truly having a positive effect on the patients and remove anybiases.

The compound was developed by the biopharmaceutical company: Exonate. In the first phase of trials, 48 patients will be given gradually increased dosages of the drug. The following phase will have a larger group of patients be treated by the drug for an extended period of time.

EXN 407, thankfully, has been designed to be given topically in the form of eye drops. This is down to a property of the compound that provides ‘ocular permeability’, allowing the drug to enter the desired area without having to inject it directly.

Professor Dave Bates highlighted that ‘a great many scientists have contributed along the way – we thank everyone involved’. He named a few of the contributors, including Bristol’s team: Steve Harper, Lucy Donaldson and colleagues who identified a specific drug target- known as SRPK1. As well as the novel chemistry techniques of Jonathan Morris at UNSW; and the development of pre-clinical programmes by the Exonate team.

Professor Bates added, ‘To be part of medical research from the lab bench all the way through to the clinic is a rare privilege.’

Generally, DMO patients tend to be of working-age, so the disease often causes significant impact on their financial stability and daily routines. Dr Catherine Beech, Chief Executive of Exonate, expressed that: ‘This is a unique opportunity to create a drug that may have the potential to improve the treatment of patients with retinal vascular diseases and transform the lives of those suffering from vision loss’.

With clinical trials underway, the initial results are expected as early as 2022.

Featured image: Epigram/ Julia Riopelle

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