Could a Drug That Treats Alcoholism Help Improve Vision in Retinitis Pigmentosa?

New research from Dr. Richard Kramer (University California, Berkley) shows a potential way to improve vision in individuals who have retinal degeneration using the drug disulfiram (Antabuse) which is used to treat alcoholism.

When photoreceptor cells die, as they do in many types of retinal degeneration, they release a chemical compound which is converted into retinoic acid. Dr. Kramer previously showed that high levels of retinoic acid lead to constant “background noise” which makes
it hard for the optic nerve and brain to react to real light signals.

In a study, published in the journal Science Advances, Dr. Kramer’s team used disulfiram, to reduce retinoic acid levels in a mouse model of RP. They found that mice with RP had better visual responses after treatment with disulfiram.

Based on these results, the team wants to launch a small clinical trial to see if this drug would have the same impact in patients. This treatment is not likely to reduce the progression of retinal degeneration, however, it might help people maximize the vision
they have left.

While the results seem promising another study published in eLife by Harvard Medical School researchers suggests that the role of retinoic acid in vision may be more complicated. This study found that reducing retinoic acid led to reduced cone photoreceptor cell survival.

Taken together, these studies show that retinoic acid may play multiple and potentially conflicting roles in retinal degeneration and vision loss. More work will be important to better understand this complexity.

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