Newswise — Researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM) have for the first time identified stem cells in the region of the optic nerve, which transmits signals from the eye to the brain. The finding, published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), presents a new theory on why the most common form of glaucoma may develop and provides potential new ways to treat a leading cause of blindness in American adults.
“We believe these cells, called neural progenitor cells, are present in the optic nerve tissue at birth and remain for decades, helping to nourish the nerve fibers that form the optic nerve,” said study leader Steven Bernstein, MD, PhD, Professor and Vice Chair of the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “Without these cells, the fibers may lose their resistance to stress, and begin to deteriorate, causing damage to the optic nerve, which may ultimately lead to glaucoma.”
The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health’s National Eye Institute (NEI), and a number of distinguished researchers served as co-authors on the study.
More than 3 million Americans have glaucoma, which results from damage to the optic nerve, causing blindness in 120,000 U.S. patients. This nerve damage is usually related to increased pressure in the eye due to a buildup of fluid that does not drain properly. Blind spots can develop in a patient’s visual field that