MLERF research examined the idea that the environment can play a role in the development of glaucoma. The investigation is working to determine if glaucoma could be, in part, an autoimmune disease and if bacteria normally present in the eye could contribute to glaucoma. When glaucoma was induced in mice that were completely germ-free (i.e. had no bacteria), they exhibited the characteristic increase in pressure within the eye, but showed no optic nerve damage.
The research found that a protein produced by bacteria known as heat shock protein (HSP)-27 can induce an immune response in retinal ganglion cells that make up the optic nerve. This immune response damaged the optic nerve causing loss of vision. This work opens the possibility that treatments to block the immune response might prevent optic nerve damage and preserve vision.