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How can research with fruit flies help?

The use of stem cells in the eye can prevent blindness

Diseases of the retina are one of the most common causes for visual impairments in western industrial countries. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) 285 million people have impaired vision, and out of those 40 million go blind.

The most frequent cause is the death of retinal nerve cells. Using the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster scientists explore which genetic mutations are the cause. Even though the eyes of a human and a fruit fly are designed differently, a mutation of the crumbs1 gene can have the same effects: blindness.

The research results could form the base for new therapies, such as gene and cell therapy. During gene therapy an intact gene is implanted in the patient’s photoreceptors. This gene takes over the function of the mutated gene and prevents photoreceptor cells from degenerating, which enable us to see colours and differentiate between light and dark. In cell therapy, healthy stem cells are transplanted in the retina. These then fulfil the function of the degenerated or dying cells.