Jackson Lab announces breakthrough in glaucoma research

Posted March 09, 2011, at 7:42 p.m.

BAR HARBOR, Maine —- With the help of a new genetic analysis technique they have developed, researchers at The Jackson Laboratory say they can detect and treat the early stages of glaucoma in mice.

The finding is significant, according to lab officials, because up until now the loss of eyesight has been the only way to determine whether someone has glaucoma, which tends to affect older people.

Joyce Peterson, spokeswoman for the lab, said Wednesday that with the new detection method developed by Dr. Simon W. M. John and his research staff, theoretically it may be possible to detect early stages of other diseases that tend to come about slowly over time, such as Alzheimer’s. She said John has not applied the method specifically to any disease besides glaucoma.

“The ability to find early events has been elusive,” Peterson said. “It could have far-reaching implications for many, many diseases. This is a huge breakthrough.”

John’s research team analyzed genomic data from mice that typically develop glaucoma. Using this new, cluster-based analysis of microarray data, they identified many changes that occur before detectable damage from glaucoma occurs. They first reported their findings in a scientific paper recently published by The Journal of Clinical Investigation.

Glaucoma, a leading cause of blindness, affects more than 4 million Americans. The best-known symptom of glaucoma is elevated pressure inside the eye, but damage that leads to a loss of eyesight can occur in patients with normal eye pressure. Earlier detection and treatment could have a powerful impact preventing blindness due to glaucoma, researchers say.

Lab officials indicated in a prepared statement that drugs already approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration can be used to treat early stages of the disease, though the drugs have not been approved for treating glaucoma.

The volume of molecular data revealed by John’s research team is significant, lab officials said, and far exceeds the data discussed in their paper. To encourage further additional research, John and his team are making their findings available to biomedical researchers worldwide through a new database, lab officials said.

Jackson Lab, which employs more than 1,200 people at its Bar Harbor campus, is known globally for its use of mice to research human disease and medical conditions. Each year, it produces millions of specially bred laboratory mice that are used in similar studies all over the world.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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