New Glaucoma Culprit Uncovered

First Posted: Sep 12, 2014 06:17 PM EDT

Glaucoma remains the leading cause of irreversible blindness throughout the world. Yet scientists have discovered a new culprit that's causing the health issue.

According to recent findings published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, gatekeeper cells are responsible for making human eyes with the disorder stiffer, drastically damaging the optic nerve. However, for nearly 150 years, scientists have been plagued by exactly what caused the blockage that prevented the eye from draining properly.

Researchers at Northwestern's McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science and Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Illinois found that these endothelial cells from eyes with glaucoma are stiffer than cells from healthy eyes. This stiffness limits the cells' ability to deform and allow a fluid called aqueous humor to cross the endothelium and drain into Schlemm's canal. This increased flow resistance is responsible for the elevated pressure associated with glaucoma.

"There is no cure for glaucoma, which affects more than two million Americans," said Mark Johnson, the senior author of the study, in a news release. "Our work shows that cells of this endothelial layer act as mechanical gates. Therapeutic strategies that alter the stiffness of these cells potentially could lead to a cure for this debilitating disease."

"The work appears to be one of the first times that the methods of mechanobiology -- the study of the mechanical characteristics of cells -- have been used to show that dysfunctional cell mechanics lies at the heart of a disease process," Johnson concluded. 

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