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Helping Diabetics Keep Their Sight

By Nancy Langmeyer

Between 25 and 45 percent of the 16 million diabetics in the United States will likely develop some degree of diabetic retinopathy, the leading cause of blindness. Ross Shonat, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at WPI, hopes his research on the role of oxygen in vascular diseases may help point the way to new ways to treat and prevent this condition.

As diabetes progresses, and retinopathy begins to develop, blood vessels lose their shape and leak, and new vessels may start to grow. Shonat, whose research focuses on metabolic function and oxygenation in neural tissues, such as the eye and brain, believes that hypoxia, or low levels of oxygen in the eye, may cause these changes. He hopes to confirm this hypothesis by creating two- and three-dimensional maps of oxygen tension in the eye. He is developing the technology to create these maps with funding from the Diabetes-Endocrinology Research Center at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and the Whitaker Foundation.

The photo on the left is a phosphorescence- intensity image of the blood vessels in the retina of a mouse, which radiate out from the optic nerve at the center. The image on the right, of the same retina, is a two-dimensional map of oxygen tension. Maps like this are helping Ross Shonat gain a better understanding of how oxygen is delivered to the retina and the role that oxygen metabolism and delivery play in the early phases of diabetic retinopathy.

In his laboratory, Shonat uses his new mapping technology to measure the oxygen tension in diabetic and normal mice as they age. The measurements are helping him gain a better understanding of how oxygen is delivered to the retina and the role that oxygen metabolism and delivery play in the early phases of diabetic retinopathy. This research is also helping to uncover the relationship between oxygenation and very early, sub-clinical damage to the tissues of the eye.

"If we can correlate abnormalities in the oxygen levels with the progression of diabetic retinopathy in the animal models," he says, "we can give ophthalmologists clinically relevant information they can use to better assess when and how to treat this disease. They'll also have a much better chance of detecting diabetic retinopathy early enough to prevent it from progressing."

Shonat says he hopes to one day see his technology become the basis for a routine screening tool for this and other eye diseases, including age-related macular degeneration.

He says the technology may also be useful for assessing the efficacy of certain drugs that may be used to treat and even reverse the symptoms of diabetic retinopathy.

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Last modified: Apr 13, 2005, 15:55 EDT
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