Hope for millions of blind people thanks to enzymes and anonymous donation

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Researchers at Ghent University have discovered enzymes that can cure age- and diabetes-related blindness. Nearly 200 million people worldwide suffer from these diseases. Thanks to financial support from one Ghent University alumnus and the Industrial Research Fund (IOF), the researchers are now working on eye drops made using these enzymes.

The discovery made by Professor Elisabeth Van Aken (Department of Head and Skin), an ophthalmologist, and Professor Joris Delanghe (Department of Diagnostic Sciences) offers hope to many. In Belgium, the main cause of blindness in people under 65 is diabetes, while for people over 75 it is age-related macular degeneration (AMD). At least one in four people over 75 suffer from AMD. To this day, such cases remain incurable.

Enzymes that cure blindness

According to Elisabeth, “the disease’s [AMD's] effects are often underappreciated. While people of that age remain quite active, blindness takes away their independence. It is so bad, in fact, that the disease is responsible for as many as half of applications for euthanasia among the elderly.” Eye drops that can cure their blindness could therefore almost be considered an elixir of life.

The enzymes used by Elisabeth and Joris break down accumulated saccharified proteins. As we age, proteins everywhere in our body become saccharified – just like they do in people with diabetes. This process is called 'glycation' and can lead to arteriosclerosis, for example. When this happens in your retina, black spots begin to obstruct your vision.

What fingernails and eye lenses have in common

The discovery was made by accident, on a project in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to detect diabetes without the need to take blood samples. Since sending blood samples to diagnostic centres is not practical there, Ghent University researchers looked for another way.

They found this through fingernails. Using infrared light, they were able to make the saccharified tissue in a diabetic patient's fingernails visible. “That was the moment that we stumbled upon this fantastic and ground-breaking research,” says Joris.

Inspired by this discovery in the DRC, Joris went to Elisabeth. “We wanted to investigate whether these saccharified structures in the fingernails were also found elsewhere in the body, especially somewhere more clinically advantageous. With nails, if they become damaged, you cut them off and that's the end of it. They are not worth investigating any further.” Elisabeth compared the structures with eye lenses of people with diabetes and people with macular degeneration, and they matched.

Highly effective therapy

The real eureka moment came when they discovered enzymes that dissolve the saccharified tissues. The VIB (Flemish Institute for Biotechnology) was very impressed by these findings and helped to produce the enzymes.

Then followed years and years of testing. In the evenings, after her consultations and operations, Elisabeth would dive into the lab. The treatment proved to be very effective. “We used the enzymes for the first time in droplet form on a number of diabetic dogs,” she explains. “Three of these dogs can now see again. Both the dogs and the owners were incredibly happy with the results. Imagine I could apply this to help my patients; wouldn’t that be great?”

Ghent University alumnus provides a boost

Although the first step towards treating both diseases has already been taken, the road is still a long one. Fortunately, at the start of this year, the research received help from a generous donor who preferred to remain anonymous. Years ago, he received his doctorate from Ghent University. He states: “I'm grateful for the opportunities I was given at the time. That's why I have been sponsoring interesting and promising research for a number of years.” Thanks to his financial support, the AMD Chair was established, enabling the researchers to embark on the Good Manufacturing Practices pathway. This route is necessary to assess the drug in clinical trials.

Now the alumnus has gone one step further, by setting up a private foundation that invests in spin-offs – academic ventures that commercialize technologies or innovative ideas. By doing so, he is helping to further develop promising scientific research and bring innovative products to the market.

With the foundation, he hopes to attract other investors without compromising his anonymity. “It's not my intention to make a profit from the foundation. If my investments make money, I will reinvest this into new spin-offs.”

“I'm grateful for the opportunities I was given at the time. That's why I have been sponsoring interesting and promising research for a number of years.”
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Developing eye drops

Today, the alumnus wants to set up a spin-off with his foundation to develop the eye drops, building on Joris and Elisabeth's research. The company is further developing the therapy to a stage where pharmaceutical companies would be interested. When this will be depends on the financial resources available. Due to the social relevance of this research, the investments are not only private, but also public.

“The current phase, which precedes preclinical development, requires several million euros,” explains Dr Daisy Flamez, business developer at the IOF, which is supporting the Ghent University spin-off. “Moreover, this process takes a few years. And that’s not all. Preclinical development is followed by clinical trials. Many pharmaceutical companies only come on the scene at that point.”

In the meantime, Daisy has already licensed the test to detect diabetes through fingernails to a company. Hopefully, the eye drops will be on the market within a few years, thereby rendering age- and diabetes-related blindness a thing of the past.

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Elisabeth Van Aken became a Doctor of Medical Sciences in 2001, specialising in ophthalmology. Her favourite spot at Ghent University is the Oude Bijloke, where, on warmer days, she breathes in the scent of blossoms, the lab and centuries-old sweat.

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Joris Delanghe is a Doctor of Medicine, Surgery and Obstetrics. Graduating in 1987, he specialised in clinical biology and as a Doctor in Biomedical Sciences. He admired law doctor Professor Jacques Timperman for his medical judicial practice.

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Daisy Flamez has been a Doctor of Science since 1994. Her early career was defined by the drive of VIB founder Professor Walter Fiers.

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