Dr. Wolfgang Baehr & Collaborators Discover Vital Relationship between Thyroid Hormones and Macular Degeneration

Feb 19, 2014 1:00 AM

Baehr In Lab

The University of Utah’s John A. Moran Eye Center announced today that Wolfgang B. Baehr, PhD—Professor of Ophthalmology, Adjunct Professor of Biology and Neurobiology and Anatomy—and a team of six researchers from the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, and researchers from the National Eye Institute (NEI) have discovered a link between lower levels of thyroid hormones and reduced damage to photoreceptor cone cells in mouse models with retinal degeneration. Age-related macular degeneration and other retinal diseases are the result of damage to cone cells in the eyes.

The study, titled “Suppressing thyroid hormone signaling preserves cone photoreceptors in mouse models of retinal degeneration” is featured in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, one of the world's most-cited multidisciplinary scientific publications. Photoreceptor cells, found in the back of the eye, (the retina), are made up of rods and cones that respond to light, colors and shapes. They are necessary for human sight. In many retinal diseases, including age-related macular degeneration, vision loss occurs because the cone cells degenerate. Unfortunately, there is currently no cure available for macular degeneration.

Thyroid hormones are essential to proper development and differentiation of all cells in the human body. The process of producing thyroid hormones and delivering them to theretina through the bloodstream is called thyroid hormone signaling. In previous studies, researchers discovered that excess thyroid hormone signaling caused cones to degenerate and die. Dr. Baehr, together with the Oklahoma and NEI researchers, discovered that when thyroid hormone signaling was reduced in mouse models, cones were preserved and the retina did not degenerate in mouse models with retinal degeneration.

What is the potential significance for patient care? This discovery may one day provide doctors with an additional approach to the management of patients with retinal degeneration. “This is a great honor for me and the Moran Eye Center,” Baehr said. “Working with such talented researchers will further our understanding of photoreceptor
signaling and disease progression. We hope to discover ways to sustain cone viability in the eyes of individuals with macular degeneration and other retinal diseases.”

In addition to Baehr, the study was co-authored by Hongwei Ma, Arjun Thapa, Xi-Quin Ding, and Lynsie Morris of the University of Oklahoma Heath Sciences Center; and T. Michael Redmond of the Laboratory of Retinal Cell and Molecular Biology at the National Eye Institute. The research was supported by generous grants from the National Eye Institute, the National Center for Research Resources and the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology.

“Dr. Baehr has received international respect and acclaim, making him an indispensable asset to our team,” said Dr. Randall J Olson, Moran Eye Center CEO and Chair, Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, University of Utah Health Care. “Being published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is an accomplishment in itself, but more importantly, he and the other researchers have hypothesized and then discovered promising results that someday could be a crucial link in treating diseases of the retina.”

About Wolfgang Baehr, PhD 
Dr. Baehr is the Ralph and Mary Tuck Professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, Moran Eye Center, with adjunct appointments in Neurobiology and Anatomy and Biology. Dr. Baehr received the prestigious ALCON Award in 2013 and will receive the Proctor Medal at the 2014 annual meeting of the Association for Research in Vision & Ophthalmology (ARVO) Conference. Moran CEO, Dr. Randall J Olson said this about Dr. Baehr receiving the Proctor Medal: “This award is the oldest and most prestigious recognition of visual research in the country. It is fitting that Dr. Baehr is being honored for his contributions toward improving our understanding of retinal disease. His work has far-reaching impacts for bettering the visual health of people around the world.”