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CeMM and MedUni Vienna decipher the mechanism behind age-related macular degeneration

(Vienna 5th October 2011) A research group led by Christoph J. Binder at the CeMM Research Center for Molecular Medicine of the Austrian Academy of Sciences and at the MedUni Vienna has deciphered a mechanism involved in the development of age-related macular degeneration that has never been seen before. This opens up tremendous opportunities to develop new treatments for one of the most debilitating ophthalmological diseases.

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the main cause of blindness in the western world. The processes that trigger the condition have largely been a mystery until now. The scientists have now been able to demonstrate that a frequently-occurring by-product of the body’s own molecules, known as malondialdehyde (MDA), plays a significant role in the development of AMD. The scientists have also been able to render this product harmless.

Mechanism identified that renders AMD harmless
Oxidative stress in the retina causes a build-up of the potentially harmful waste product malondialdehyde. First author David Weismann, PhD student at the CeMM, has now identified the defence mechanism that renders malondialdehyde (MDA) harmless in a healthy organism or triggers its transport away from the retina. The results of the study, which could play an important role in the development of new therapies, have been published in the latest edition of “Nature”, one of the most highly-respected journals in the field worldwide.

“Sensational success”
Giulio Superti-Furga, Scientific Director of the CeMM, had this to say about the scientific breakthrough: “I’m absolutely delighted that the young team led by Christoph Binder has achieved such a sensational success. An article in Nature is the world’s finest objective recognition of an individual research achievement and Austria’s scientists only produce a few such articles each year. Christoph Binder’s achievement strengthens the vision of the Austrian Academy of Sciences and the Medical University of Vienna to create the best conditions for young scientists at the CeMM, and to carry out fundamental and clinical research at the highest possible level.”

“This represents a milestone in the research into age-related macular degeneration that will generate tremendous interest internationally too. The Medical University of Vienna is therefore once again proving its excellent international reputation”, says Wolfgang Schütz, Rector of the MedUni Vienna.

The several-year study at the CeMM and the MedUni Vienna, which also involved scientists from the University of San Diego, the University of Jena and the John Hopkins University, showed that one of the most common proteins in blood plasma, the complementary factor H, neutralises the harmful malondialdehyde and thereby prevents inflammation. This function of complementary factor H in the body’s own defence system was previously unknown. Variations in the gene that codes for factor H lead to a seven to nine-fold increased risk of developing AMD.

Binder’s research group has now been able to demonstrate that the risk variant of complement factor H can only protect inadequately against the harmful effects of MDA and therefore increase the risk of developing age-related macular degeneration. Binder: "The results are further confirmation of the hypothesis that the body’s innate defences not only fight bacteria and viruses, but also protect against harmful processes within the body.” Oswald Wagner, Vice-Rector of the MedUni Vienna and Head of the Clinical Institute of Laboratory Medicine says: “We are already able to test patients to see whether they have this mutation and are therefore at increased risk.”

CeMM (Research Center for Molecular Medicine of the Austrian Academy of Sciences) – Summary profile
The CeMM is an international, independent and interdisciplinary research organisation for molecular medicine. “Improving clinical practice through clinical research” – the CeMM focuses on medical needs and integrates fundamental research as well as clinical expertise to develop innovative diagnostic and therapeutic approaches. Its areas of expertise include cancer, inflammatory conditions and immunodeficiencies.

Medical University of Vienna – Summary profile
The Medical University of Vienna (MedUni Vienna) is one of Europe’s medical training and research facilities with the greatest history and tradition. Counting almost 7,500 students, it is today the largest medical training facility in the German-speaking region. With its 31 university departments, 12 medical-theoretical centres and numerous highly specialised laboratories, it also ranks amongst the most significant cutting-edge research institutions in Europe in the biomedical sector. Over 48,000 square metres of space have been dedicated to clinical research at the facility.