Shining new light on the body clock and retinopathy

Alarm clock on desk with sunlight shining down

Dr Eleni Beli, UCL - £267,533 (co-funded with Diabetes UK)

Disruptions to our body clock can have a surprising impact on our health, including links with eye damage for people living with diabetes. Dr Eleni Beli wants to take a closer look at these links, to understand more about how eye damage can develop and progress. Her research could uncover an innovative new approach to help people with diabetes avoid sight loss.

What is the problem?

Our body clock plays an important role in telling us when we should wake up and go to sleep. This is called the circadian rhythm. It’s very strongly linked to daylight and darkness at night, so it can be thrown out of kilter by things like jet lag, night shifts, or even getting up to go to work or school when it’s dark outside. For people with diabetes, disruption in their circadian rhythm can lead to problems with managing blood sugar levels.

When blood sugar levels are too high, over time blood vessels in the eyes can be damaged in a complication of diabetes known as retinopathy. Dr Eleni Beli and her team have found that our cells in our eyes have their own circadian clocks and want to explore if disrupting or removing this clock is linked to retinopathy.

What are they doing?

Dr Beli and her team will use light to shift and disrupt body clocks in mice with diabetes. Some of the mice will have had their eye clocks genetically switched off. The team will then take photos of the mice’s eyes to check their health and look for signs of retinopathy damage. They’ll look for differences between the mice with and without eye clocks, to see if the eye clock plays a part in how eye damage progresses.

They’ll also use powerful microscopes to look at the eyes in minute detail. This will help them to understand which cells and molecules are involved in driving retinopathy, which could be targeted by new treatments.

How can this help?

Sight loss can be devastating and at the moment we don’t have any treatments to prevent or reverse retinopathy. Improving our understanding of how it develops is vital to help scientists to come up with innovative ways to tackle it. Dr Beli’s research will shine a light on how our circadian rhythm is linked to our eye health.

This knowledge could help people with diabetes to get support to minimise disruption to their body clocks. It could lead to the development of new ways to measure disruption in the eye clock, so we can spot people at greater risk of retinopathy. And it could result in the discovery of new drugs that target the eye clock to stop or slow retinopathy, and help people with diabetes avoid sight loss.

Professor Luminita Paraoan and her team, University of Liverpool

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