Unblinded by the Light: Light Therapy in Eye Disease
All right, so I’m gonna tell you about the work that I do: “Unblinded by the Light.” I love this particular title. I am a professor at UW-Milwaukee, and I’ve been working in the area of light therapy for about the last—almost the last 20 years. I trained as a pharmacologist, so my training is actually in drugs.
My new drug is light, and I’ll tell you why. So, what I’m going to tell you about is this incredible adventure of basically growing plants in space — and it’s a Wisconsin adventure — to treating retinal disease. So it started as—whoa—so it started essentially with NASA back in the ’90s and a company out of Barneveld, Wisconsin. And this company actually worked with the first light-emitting diodes to develop a growth system, a plant growth system, for growing plants in space. Because you can’t open the windows of the International Space Station.
You’d just fry the astronauts and you can’t even take a grow light up there because you get way too much heat. So they needed something that didn’t produce heat but would stimulate chloroplasts and they did some studies. The plant biologists are brilliant and they knew that green— I’m sorry blue and red light would turn on chloroplasts photosynthesis. Well it turns out that red light also turns on the kissing cousins of chloroplasts. So millions of years ago an ancient microorganism crawled into a plant and became a chloroplast and let plants make energy from light. And about the same time an ancient microorganism climbed into the primordial what would become our cells and allowed them to make energy from aerobic respiration and that enabled us to climb out of the slime; otherwise we’d still be there. And so basically photosynthetic light turns on chloroplasts and far-red to near-infrared light will turn on mitochondria.
So why is that important? Well, that’s important because—oops we go back Oh we’ll just do it this way it’s fine. There. Thanks. That’s important because mitochondrial dysfunction is critical to virtually every disease, and the diseases that interest me the most are in the eye. And so glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, all of these diseases have in common the disruption of mitochondria, oxidative damage, cell death and blindness. And light — far-red, near-infrared light — stimulates mitochondria, disrupts oxidative damage and protects these cells.
And we know this from studies that we’ve actually done in animal and now experimental studies in diseases such as retinitis pigmentosa, which affects one in 4,000 people, diabetic retinopathy, which is a downright epidemic now along with diabetes, and age-related macular degeneration, which is the primary cause of blindness in individuals over the age of 60. We have shown that we can treat with very brief treatments — 90 seconds of light once a day for — in the case of the clinical studies, for three weeks, will protect someone, will reverse the effects of the blinding effects of macular degeneration for up to six months. And not just stop it, but actually make things better. Make visual acuity better so people see better, the difference between being able to read and not read, being able to drive a car and not drive a car. So it’s making a substantial difference. It’s — we’ve also just finished a trial at the Medical College of Wisconsin just next door looking at individuals with diabetic retinopathy, which also has a high incidence— there’s a high incidence of blindness and diabetes.
And we’ve shown that we can improve vision in these individuals as well. We’re treating again just about three times a week for four weeks in this case. So we’re sort of moving it forward. It’s a very exciting area. I have absolutely committed myself to not retiring from science until this is out and being used as a therapeutic approach for blinding diseases. Thank you!