Purdue vision-loss research eyes Chinese medicine

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) — Mother knows best.

That adage led a Purdue University researcher to pursue collaborating with a Chinese eye center and university to discover new drugs that possibly could cure or prevent vision loss and retinal degeneration.

The focus of Yuk Fai Leung's new laboratory with the Joint Shantou International Eye Center of Shantou University and the Chinese University of Hong Kong is testing the benefits of traditional Chinese medicine, including herbs, flowers and other plants.

"Chinese moms say 'You better eat this because it's good for your eyes,' " Leung, an assistant professor of biological sciences, told the Journal & Courier (http://on.jconline.com/1eo32Es ). "With this idea, I started to talk to my collaborators in Hong Kong and China, and we found interesting common ground. Both my scientific colleagues as well as my environment are really using traditional Chinese medicine."

The collaboration hinges on China's growing financial commitment to research and Purdue's strength in the drug commercialization scene.

"We all know the research support in this country is not very nice," Leung said. "The research support in Asia is growing. We can work together so we can bring these ideas to fruition."

The partners decided to focus on retinal degeneration because it affects so many individuals. Age-related macular degeneration is one of the leading causes of severe vision loss in seniors worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.

"There are not many effective treatments available for retinal degeneration, but the vision loss is usually a gradual process, which means there is a significant window for intervention," Leung said. "Drugs or therapies that could slow the progression of the disease could allow people to hold onto their vision longer and greatly improve their quality of life."

The laboratory is based at Purdue and uses zebra fish in order to screen the traditional Chinese compounds. Leung said he would not release which medicines are being tested because of intellectual property and competition reasons, since no research has been published yet.

Zebra fish, a freshwater species that typically grow no larger than one or two inches in length, are being used because they have similar eye structures to humans, Leung said. Two similarities are light sensitivity and similar retina architecture.

Zebra fish embryos grow quickly, which Leung says makes the research process more efficient.

"In nature if you don't develop your vision fast, you're going to become someone's lunch very quickly," Leung said. "The eye function develops fast. We are utilizing that to quickly assay the visual sensation."

They're also budget-friendly.

"You can really keep a lot of them in a small area cheaply, and cheaply is a really important word in the research circle these days," Leung said. "The idea is you can really do a lot . with minimal input costs. . We are bringing an important animal drug screening model to the equation."

The researchers have been using infrared light sensitivity tests as initial predictors of whether certain compounds would help visually impaired fish.

"The good thing about (using) fish is we can simply put the drugs in the water and ask the question whether the presence of the compound is helping them to see better," Leung said.

The responses of the fish under various circumstances give clues about how they are reacting to an environment or drug.

"When we turn on the lights, the normal ones swim aggressively because they can sense the change and they are scared," Leung said. "The visually impaired ones, they didn't respond much."

Once preliminary research is completed and the partners have developed findings, there is a possibility that useful drug compounds could be developed further by Purdue's Bindley Biosciences Center and Center for Drug Discovery.

The Center for Drug Discovery will officially open next year in a $28 million facility and will accommodate 90 multidisciplinary researchers.

Leung said future collaborations between Purdue and Chinese researchers are in the works. One already established partnership is a five-year agreement with a botanical garden in southern China to supply materials for the eye-drug screening.

"These can potentially bring better synergies to the Purdue area, and that's why we are really excited to make the first (announcement) about the joint research lab," Leung said. "There are other programs that are ongoing . that would make the collaborations between Purdue and China much more interesting.

"I feel my program is creating a bridge for many different ones."

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Information from: Journal and Courier, http://www.jconline.com

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