Could an autoimmune response be behind the eye pressure and vision loss that sometimes precedes a glaucoma diagnosis? Researchers at Harvard Ophthalmology and MIT think so after conducting research that is providing new insights into what causes glaucoma.

“Our work shows that there is hope for finding a cure for glaucoma, or even preventing its development entirely, if we can find a way to target this pathway”

The new findings suggest vision loss in people with glaucoma is caused by an immune response to early exposure to bacteria, which can elevate eye pressure and trigger heat shock proteins. Memory T cells then detect the heat shock proteins and mistakenly see the neurons in the retina as foreign bodies and attack causing vision disturbances, vomiting, and severe eye pain.

“Our work shows that there is hope for finding a cure for glaucoma, or even preventing its development entirely, if we can find a way to target this pathway,” said co-senior author Dong Feng Chen, M.D., Ph.D., Associate Professor of Ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School, and a vision scientist at Schepens Eye Research Institute of Mass. Eye and Ear.

The research opens opportunities for targeted treatment options and perhaps even a cure. By targeting and destroying misguided memory T cells to prevent them from attacking neurons without harming the immune system, doctors might be able to eliminate the risk factor for blindness.