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Bile acid receptor could be innovative target in protecting the vision of premature newborns

May 30, 2023
Thounaojam with retinal images in background.

Menaka C. Thounaojam, Ph.D. Image credit: Michael Holahan, Augusta University

It sounds like bile acid in the eye would hurt, but scientists think stimulating one of its receptors can actually help protect the vision of premature newborns.

It’s called the farnesoid-X-receptor, or FXR, a bile acid receptor whose expression is significantly diminished in two key cell types affected by retinopathy of prematurity.

Medical College of Georgia scientists have early evidence that targeting that receptor could provide earlier, more impactful treatments for these babies, a process that could be expedited by the fact that the drugs they are studying already are used in people.

A small fraction of premature babies develop retinopathy of prematurity, a leading cause of childhood blindness, which, at its most severe, can lead to formation of leaky blood vessels that further obstruct rather than improve vision and retinal detachment.

Key to normal blood vessel development are astrocytes, normally supportive star-shaped cells that, for example, in the developing eye secrete vascular endothelial growth factor, or VEGF. As the name implies, VEGF is essential to new blood vessel growth, and astrocytes also help lay out the pattern for where endothelial cells, which line blood vessels, need to go and what they should do when they get there.

Based on the data they’ve already generated, the scientists believe that better FXR signaling can prevent astrocytes from dying and consequently endothelial cells will get the proper direction for developing functional new blood vessels and babies will have better vision.