Spinach protein could offer new hope for the blind

OAK RIDGE, Tenn., Sept. 26, 2001 Spinach, touted in the Popeye cartoon for its ability to strengthen the body, may prove even more valuable for restoring vision to people who are legally blind.

Researchers at the Department of Energys Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Southern California hope to learn whether a protein from spinach could replace a non-functioning light receptor in the eye. People who suffer from age-related macular degeneration or retinitis pigmentosa, diseases that are leading causes of blindness worldwide, may find hope in this research.

"Although the neural wiring from the eye to brain is intact in people with these diseases, their eyes lack photoreceptor activity," said Eli Greenbaum of ORNLs Chemical Technology Division.

Greenbaum and colleagues propose replacing these non-functioning photoreceptors with a spinach protein that gives off a small electrical voltage after capturing the energy of incoming photons. The main function of Photosystem I, a photosynthetic reaction center protein, is to perform photosynthesis in leaves using the energy of the sun to make plant tissue.

Greenbaums collaborator is Mark Humayun, a professor in the University of Southern Californias Doheny Eye Institute. Humayun and his research team showed that if retinal tissue is stimulated electrically using pinhead-sized electrodes implanted in the eyes of legally blind patients, many can see image patterns that mimic the effects of stimulation by light.

Greenbaum believes that it might be possible to use Photosystem I protein to restore photoreceptor activity. Experiments by Greenbaums team showed that Photosystem I protein can capture photon energy and generate electric voltages of up to 1 volt.

"What we need to find out is whether these voltages can trigger neural events and allow the brain to interpret the images," Greenbaum said.

In recent research, the team showed that Photosystem I reaction

Contact: Ron Walli
DOE/Oak Ridge National Laboratory

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