Columbia Researchers Synthesize Compound With Possible Link To MacularDegeneration; Work Is Critical To Pinpointing Causes Of Disease, Scientists Say

onal Eye Institute, a division of the National Institutes of Health. As the population ages, the problem is expected to worsen.

The sensitive macula, located at the center of the retina, provides the visual acuity necessary for driving, reading and other everyday tasks. With the onset of AMD, there is a degeneration of the retina's rods and cones, cells that detect light. One type of AMD, called the "dry" form, afflicts 90 percent of those with AMD and leads to a worsening blurriness of central vision over periods up to 20 years. A second type, called "wet," occurs when new blood vessels grow beneath the retinal pigment epithelial cells and leads to a more rapid decrease in vision. In some cases, wet AMD can be treated with laser surgery to destroy the affected areas.

A new line of research on macular degeneration was opened when scientists found a fluorescent orange pigment that accumulates in retinal pigment epithelial cells, or RPE cells, that line the retina and support the eye's photoreceptive rods and cones. Several years ago, ophthalmologist Graig Eldred of the University of Missouri-Columbia, using donor eyes, isolated a tiny amount - millionths of a gram - of the substance. In 1996, Naomi Sakai, a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia, and Professor Nakanishi found the exact structure of the pigment, which turned out to be two molecules of retinal, a form of vitamin A, joined to ethanolamine by a pyridinium group; they named the compound A2E. The chemists developed a synthesis using compounds available in the body but for a given quantity of reactants yielded less than one percent A2E.

Vitamin A is among the essential pigments for building the retina, and the researchers concluded that useful forms of vitamin A were somehow becoming available for A2E formation. In the rods and cones that line the back of the eye, the key molecule that detects light is rhodopsin. It consists of opsin, a stable protein, and retinal, a

Contact: Bob Nelson
Columbia University

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