Scientists find a gene causing both blindness and heart muscle disease

Credit: Liam Anderson/ Pexels.

In a recent study from the University of Geneva, scientists have discovered a new gene that causes blindness and heart muscle disease.

They have also managed to halt the progression of eye disease and treat cardiac disease by administering a food supplement.

Researchers have recently identified 45 new genes that cause blindness or cognitive problems.

The scientists focused in particular on the SLC6A6 gene, which encodes a transporter protein that carries an amino acid essential for the functioning of the retina and cardiac muscle: taurine.

When there are pathogenic mutations of the SLC6A6 gene, an individual will suffer from a lack of taurine and will gradually lose sight until he becomes blind within a few years and develops a weak heart.

The team hypothesized that a taurine supplement might make it possible to compensate for this deficiency.

The supplement was given to a young girl suffering from the disease to help stop the progression of her visual degeneration and to treat her cardiomyopathy.

In the study, the team examined the genomes of 500 Pakistani families who had ill and healthy children in order to identify as many genes as possible that cause these conditions.

One family was a source of particular interest to the researchers: the two parents—healthy first cousins—had four children, two of whom were sick: a 15-year-old boy, who lost all his sight in a few years, and a 4-year-old girl, who was gradually losing her sight but was still able to make out shapes and colors.

Their genome sequencing showed that their illness was linked to a mutation of the SLC6A6 gene.

This gene produces a protein of the cell membrane that transports taurine, an amino acid that is especially important for the functioning of the retina and cardiac muscle.

The team found patients suffering from the disease have extremely low levels of taurine in their blood.

They showed that the genetic abnormality in the family from Pakistan reduced the carrying capacity of taurine to 15% of its normal level.

The scientists speculated that it might be possible to block the progression of the disease by administering taurine to the children.

They brought the family to Geneva to conduct detailed investigations into this rare genetic disease.

In addition to the progressive visual impairment, which was now unfortunately total in the case of the boy, the doctors diagnosed damage to the cardiac muscle in both children.

The little girl fortunately still retained some residual vision.

Since taurine is a food supplement rather than a medicine, the Swiss Ethics Commission agreed that it could be administered orally.

The results quickly came about: in three days, the taurine levels in their blood jumped from 6 to 85 μ mol/l, reaching normal thresholds.

And, after two years, the cardiomyopathy had completely disappeared in both children!

In addition, the degeneration in the girl’s sight was brought to a halt, and there was even an improvement, meaning she could move around by herself.

Unfortunately, this development was not possible for the boy, who had already lost his entire retina.

The study shows the first time a food supplement given orally has been used to treat the retina and the heart successfully.

The researchers estimate that there are possibly 6,000 babies worldwide who might suffer from the same SLC6A6-related disease and around 300 in Europe and North America.

If you care about eye health, please read studies about therapy that may reverse diabetes-related eye disease, and pure cocoa may improve your eyesight in daylight.

For more information about heart health, please see recent studies about a new way to help people with heart failure, and results showing this hormone may help reduce irregular heartbeat and inflammation.

The study was published in Human Molecular Genetics.

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