Could a treatment for alcoholics help people with vision loss?

Scientists are exploring the potential of a drug used to stop people drinking in addressing progressive blinding disease

Pexels/Polina Tankilevitch

Researchers are investigating the potential of a drug originally developed to stop people drinking for preventing vision loss.

The study, which was published in Science Advances, explored the effect of giving the drug disulfiram, also known as Antabuse, to mice with retinitis pigmentosa.

When the mice were young and had healthy vision, they were trained to recognise a simple black and white image on a computer screen.

The mice were either given a placebo or disulfiram. When the vision of the mice had deteriorated, the mice in the treatment group responded to the image, even when it was blurry, while those receiving the placebo did not react to the image.

Previous research has shown that a chemical produced when rods and cones in the retina die off, retinoic acid, causes hyperactivity in retinal ganglion cells, which interferes with vision.

As well as inhibiting enzymes involved in the process of degrading alcohol, disulfiram inhibits the enzymes that make retinoic acid.

Professor of molecular and cell biology at University of California, Berkeley, Richard Kramer, shared that the treated mice had better vision than those not receiving the drug.

“There may be a long window of opportunity in which suppressing retinoic acid with drugs like disulfiram could substantially improve low vision and make a real difference in people's quality of life, he said.

“Because the drug is already FDA-approved, the regulatory hurdles are low. It wouldn't be a permanent cure, but right now there are no available treatments that even temporarily improve vision, Kramer added.