Research conducted at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis indicates that resveratrol, a naturally occurring compound found in red wine, grapes, blueberries, peanuts, and other plants, inhibits the abnormal growth of new blood vessels, or angiogenesis, in the eye. The discovery has implications for preserving vision in devastating blinding diseases, such as diabetic retinopathy and age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of blindness in Americans over age 50.

Prior studies have shown that resveratrol’s anti-aging and cancer preventative effects are the function of specific proteins, known as sirtuin family proteins. Surprisingly, in the Washington University study, resveratrol inhibited angiogenesis via a novel, sirtuin-independent pathway, known as a eukaryotic elongation factor-2 kinase (eEF2) regulated pathway. This finding suggests that blocking eEF2 is a putative therapeutic strategy to treat a number of angiogenesis-dependent diseases. The related report appears in the July 2010 issue of The American Journal of Pathology.

Abnormal blood vessel growth in the eye leads to severe visual impairment in several blinding disorders. In AMD, which accounts for more than 40% of blindness among the elderly in nursing homes, blood vessels proliferate beneath the center of the retina. In diabetic retinopathy, blood vessels grow into the retina itself. Diabetic retinopathy causes vision loss in about 20% of patients with diabetes. A third condition, retinopathy of prematurity, affects the eyes of premature infants. These infants develop abnormal blood vessels that can cause retinal detachment and interfere with vision. Worldwide, retinopathy of prematurity blinds 50,000 newborn babies each year.

“These findings show that resveratrol could potentially be a preventive therapy in high-risk patients,” said Washington University retina specialist Rajendra S. Apte, M.D., Ph.D., the study’s senior investigator. “And because it worked on existing, abnormal blood vessels in the animals, it may be a therapy that can be started after angiogenesis already is causing damage.”

Dr. Apte also said that the pathway his laboratory identified may be active not only in those blinding eye diseases, but in cancers and atherosclerosis as well. If so, then one day it may be possible to use resveratrol to improve eyesight and to prevent cardiovascular disease and some types of cancer, too.