Acute glaucoma in mice is actually an inflammatory disease and the high pressure in eye causes vision loss by causing an inflammatory reaction similar to that in response to bacterial infections.
The study, published in this week's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has immediate clinical relevance in treating the tens of millions of people worldwide from what is known as acute closed-angle glaucoma.
"Our research is the first to show an inflammatory mechanism by which high ocular pressure causes vision loss in acute glaucoma patients," said co-senior author Kang Zhang, MD, PhD and professor of ophthalmology.
Less than 10 percent of glaucoma patients in America have the closed-angle form, but in parts of Asia it accounts for almost half of all cases. The higher prevalence of closed-angle glaucoma in Asians and women is believed to be due to a shallower anterior (frontal) eye chamber.
In the study, researchers showed that a rapid, sustained large increase in eye pressure in mice turns on a gene (TLR4) that activates a protein known as caspase-8. This signaling protein in turn triggers the production of inflammatory proteins that normally help mammals fight microbial infections.
"This immune response is a double-edge sword because, while these proteins protect us from infection in a normal situation, they stimulate apoptosis (programmed cell death) in retinal cells in cases of acute glaucoma," said Zhang, who is also a staff physician at the Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System.
To further confirm the mechanism linking high eye pressure to retinal damage, researchers showed that they could slow retinal cell death in mice with acute glaucoma by suppressing either the TLR4 gene or caspace-8 protein.
The latter is particularly significant because caspace-8 inhibitors are currently in clinical trials for treating cancer and stroke. "By injecting these inhibitors into the eyes of acute glaucoma patients, it may be possible to evaluate and bring them vision-sparing treatments more quickly," said co-author Robert N. Weinreb, MD, chairman and Distinguished Professor of Ophthalmology.