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06 January 2020

Damage to mitochondrial DNA in diabetes could underlie adult blindness

Researchers have identified mutations in the mitochondrial DNA of patients with diabetic retinopathy, that could increase the progression of the disease.


Diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of adult blindness in the world, affecting more than 1 in 3 people with diabetes.

In research published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, researchers report for the first-time evidence of damage to mitochondrial DNA in samples from patients with diabetic retinopathy. Mitochondrial DNA is found in mitochondria, the body’s powerhouse where energy is made and is needed for healthy cells.

The team from the Department of Diabetes, School of Life Course Sciences, extracted DNA from blood samples of patients with diabetic retinopathy and analysed the mitochondrial DNA.

The authors detected more mutations in the mitochondrial DNA of patients with diabetic retinopathy than those without the disease. These mutations were in one specific region of the mitochondrial DNA.

The authors hypothesise that these changes will likely contribute to the loss of energy production in cells and inflammation which could be contributing to the development and progression of this disease.

Lead author of the study, Dr Afshan Malik, School of Life Course Sciences said: “We have long suspected that diabetes damages mitochondrial DNA and this data provides evidence of this in clinical samples. If we can find ways to protect mitochondrial DNA in people with diabetes, we may be able to protect their retina and stop the development and progression of diabetic retinopathy.”

The authors now aim to take this research further by growing retinal cells and exposing them to diabetic conditions to damage their mitochondria and mitochondrial DNA. They will then measure changes to the mitochondria after exposure with the hope to find a compound to prevent this damage.

Dr Afshan Malik adds: “Since diabetes has reached epidemic proportion affecting more than 480 million people worldwide, diabetic retinopathy is a major health problem and we urgently need to find ways to prevent this devastating disease.”

In this story

Afshan Malik

Reader in Mitochondrial and Diabetes Research

Hannah   Rosa

Technical Manager