Woody Allen once said, “I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” However, for researchers fighting blindness, “being there” when cones die — at least the cones in a mouse model of retinal disease — was recently a good thing. It provided important clues about how to keep them alive in people.
Cone survival is critical to treating retinal degenerations, because cones enable us to read books, recognize the faces of loved ones and enjoy Woody Allen films.
In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary found that certain receptor-interacting proteins — fittingly known as RIP — play a leading role in the death of cones. So, by developing a drug or treatment to inhibit RIP, we may be able to keep cones alive.
What’s also interesting is the investigators’ discovery that cones die in a much different way than rods, the cells that provide peripheral and night vision. When rods meet their demise, it is through a controlled process called apoptosis. Cones, on the other hand, go through a process known as necrosis, which is messier and more likely to cause damage to other nearby cells.
The researchers note, however, that they discovered necrosis seems to be more controlled than originally thought. The better we understand these processes, the better we may be able to stop them.
Even though this new knowledge about the death of cones may not be as exciting as a clinical trial, it is essential to the development of potential treatments. That’s why basic science is an important part of the Foundation’s research portfolio — it provides targets for future treatments.
Speaking of portfolios, “To Rome with Love” is the 45th film that Woody Allen has either written or directed. I am impressed that, at age 76, he is still going strong. While he is a lover of films, baseball and jazz, I am not sure how excited Woody is about our vision science. After all, he said, “Photons have mass? I didn’t even know they were Catholic.”
Pictured above: Retinal cells, with cones in blue.