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Assistant Professor Rajashekhar Gangaraju of UTHSC Receives $1 Million Grant to Continue Diabetic Retinopathy Research

Dr. Rajashekhar GangarajuFeatured
A more than $1 million grant from the National Eye Institute will allow Dr. Rajashekhar Gangaraju and his research team to continue investigating eye disease in relation to diabetes.

Rajashekhar Gangaraju, PhD, an assistant professor in the Hamilton Eye Institute at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC), has long been interested in the causes and effects of diabetic retinopathy – his father and grandfather suffered from diabetes and resulting vision loss.

As a result, Dr. Gangaraju, who came to UTHSC in 2014 from Glick Eye Institute at Indiana University School of Medicine, has focused his research on retinal vascular biology. A grant totaling $1,076,823 from the National Eye Institute, a subsidiary of the National Institutes of Health, originally given to him through his previous institution, is transferring to UTHSC to continue his research here. It will be used to support a project titled, “Vascular and Neuronal Repair with Adipose Stromal Cells in Retinopathy.” The funds will be distributed over three years.

“Everyone who develops diabetes may suffer from vision loss,” said Dr. Gangaraju. “The vision loss occurs because high blood sugar damages blood vessels causing leakage and bleeding. The blood vessels are no longer able to carry important nutrients to the retina in the eye. To compensate, more blood vessels are made, but they are fragile and also leak causing a cyclical environment and worsening damage.”

With the increasing prevalence of diabetes in the United States and throughout the world, vision loss from diabetes continues to rise. Vision-threatening retinopathy will affect 40 percent of individuals with diabetes and that percentage will increase as the population ages and more adults and children are diagnosed with diabetes. Nearly 19 million Americans have diabetes, and another 7 million are undiagnosed. Roughly 80 million are categorized as pre-diabetic or at risk of developing the disease.

Preliminary research in Dr. Gangaraju’s laboratory shows that stem cells isolated from fat cells can regenerate and repair the damaged cells in the eye and improve vision.

“The key to this discovery was based on observations in that these stem cells, also known as adipose stem cells that are located in fat tissue, are in very close contact with endothelial cells in small blood vessels and capillaries, and may serve as a natural source for regenerating damaged blood vessels in the diabetic retina,” Dr. Gangaraju said. “We know the stem cells are migrating toward the blood vessels and are trying to arrest the leakage. We believe this will be a therapy helpful for early stage diabetics, or those who have begun to suffer the effects of diabetes and have early vision loss due to the leaking blood vessels.

“This work is a precursor to clinical trials involving patients. We believe the basic science mechanisms will translate to a bedside treatment for diabetic patients if we can reach them in the early stage of diabetes,” he continued.

The research also could be applied to other vascular diseases, resulting in novel treatments for those conditions.

The National Eye Institute is dedicated to conducting and supporting research into causes of blinding eye diseases, visual disorders, mechanisms of visual function, preservation of sight, and the special health problems and requirements of the blind. For more information, visit www.nei.nih.gov. 

The National Institutes of Health (NIH), the nation’s medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit www.nih.gov.