As Europe’s average life expectancy continues to increase, so too does the risk of developing age-related diseases. Take for example Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD), a degenerative disease of the retina that can cause blindness. In fact, AMD is the leading cause of blindness in people over 50 and currently affects 17.7 million people in the EU. Taking into consideration a growing population that is living for longer, AMD is predicted to increase by 50 % in Europe and affect over 300 million people worldwide by 2040.
The challenge to finding a cure for AMD is that it is a very complex disease caused by a variety of factors, including age, genes and lifestyle. “What we don’t know is how these risk factors interact to cause the disease and why they affect some patients and not others,” says Marius Ueffing, chairman and director of the Institute for Ophthalmic Research at the University of Tübingen. “Knowing this is a prerequisite to finding a cure for AMD.”
Working to fill this knowledge gap is one of the primary goals of the EU-funded EYE-RISK project. The project developed a computational risk-prediction toolset that allows one to accurately predict an individual’s risk of developing AMD. Researchers also analysed how these risk factors contribute to the disease.
A large database to analyse AMD risks and pathology
To start, researchers compiled a database that was continuously supplied with quality-controlled data from a variety of sources. “To our knowledge, this is the largest data repository on AMD worldwide,” explains Ueffing, who co-coordinated the project.
The project also created a diagnostic panel for testing genetic predisposition to the disease. Then, using advanced computational methods, including artificial intelligence, researchers developed an innovative risk prediction algorithm.
“Based on a comprehensive dataset that combines genetic information with clinical eye examinations and lifestyle information, this tool can accurately predict an individual’s risk of developing AMD,” remarks Caroline Klaver, a researcher at the Erasmus University Medical Centre and project co-coordinator.
The tool can help anyone optimise their lifestyle choices and lower their risk of blindness. “Our tool shows that a Mediterranean diet, combined with a healthy lifestyle, can be highly protective,” says Cécile Delcourt, a researcher at the University of Bordeaux, who supervised the development of the tool. “For those who are genetically predisposed to the disease, a nutrient-rich diet can reduce their risks by 41 %.”
The EYE-RISK project also analysed the molecular processes that happen in the eye when affected by AMD. From this research, they created a computational model of potential risks, physiological activities, hazards, and the impact of ageing – a model that can serve as the basis for future research initiatives.
Tools to better prevent and treat AMD
The EYE-RISK project has set the standard for better understanding what causes AMD, an important first step in developing effective treatments. Its prediction model has been integrated into a website, where it is available to both patients and healthcare professionals.
“Our tools will help people at a high risk change their lifestyle to prevent the onset or progression of AMD,” concludes Ueffing. “They will also help prioritise patients with different risk settings to improve future clinical studies on AMD therapies.”
Although EU support for the project has come to an end, work among its partner institutions continues. For example, researchers have partnered with PRO RETINA, a German patient organisation, and Retina International, a global patient organisation. Together, they are using the results gained during the EYE-RISK project to raise awareness about AMD and communicate strategies for its prevention.
Some EYE-RISK partners have established an artificial intelligence-based platform to advance accurate and individualised diagnosis, risk profiling, and advice for patient management. This project is currently under evaluation. The project’s results have also been taken up by several pharmaceutical companies and are helping advance the development of effective treatments for AMD.