UK Study indicates poor nutrition can lead to sight-loss in later life

Delegates hear new study findings at ICO Annual Conference 2019

An unhealthy diet including high fat and cholesterol-enriched food can contribute to developing eye diseases which lead to a loss of vision, a keynote speaker at the ICO Annual Conference in Galway (15th-17th May) University of Southampton research has revealed.

The study, carried out at the University of Southampton and led by Dr Arjuna Ratnayaka, a key note speaker at a symposium on Nutrition and Age-related Macular Degeneration, has shown how retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells in the eye become damaged due to poor nutrition.  The study also revealed a potential new treatment route through which these cells could be rescued before diseases such as age-related macular degeneration (AMD) develop.  

AMD is an irreversible blinding disease caused by genetics and external factors such as smoking, high blood pressure or being overweight. It affects the central vision, which is used for reading and recognising faces and is the most common cause of sight loss in people over 50 in Ireland – with over 7000 new cases diagnosed each year.

How an unhealthy diet could increase the likelihood of eye disease is still poorly understood, therefore scientists at the Southampton University Lab analysed how disease-causing pathways triggered by poor nutrition could impact RPE cells.

Damage to RPE cells occur at the onset of AMD making them less equipped to support eye’s photoreceptors, the cells in the retina which respond to light. The death of photoreceptors lead to permanent sight-loss.

The study determined how healthy RPE cells breakdown by-products generated by daily activities of photoreceptors through the cells’ waste disposal system (which terminates in small vesicles called lysosomes).

Scientists found healthy RPE cells had a considerable degree of flexibility to cope with changing conditions in the aging eye, whereas a high fat diet can disrupt this breakdown process in RPE cells, thus causing long term damage and subsequently sight-loss.

Dr Ratnayaka, Lecturer in Vision Sciences at the University, said: “Although the effects of poor nutrition in eye health has been studied in large populations, how this actually brings about disease-causing changes in retinal cells is less well understood.

“We also found that some lysosomes appeared to remain undamaged even in such stressed RPE, suggesting an altogether new way in which damaged cells could be rescued to prevent eventual sight-loss.

“As our results showed how the waste disposal system of the RPE becomes damaged by unhealthy diet-driven disease pathways, our next step is to find out whether this type of damage can be reversed through better nutrition and if stressed or damaged RPE cells can possibly be rescued. Potential new therapies developed along these lines could offer new treatments for some AMD patients.”

The study, published in Molecular Nutrition & Food Research, was funded by the Macular Society.


Notes for editors

  1. The University of Southampton drives original thinking, turns knowledge into action and impact, and creates solutions to the world’s challenges. We are among the top 100 institutions globally (QS World University Rankings 2019). Our academics are leaders in their fields, forging links with high-profile international businesses and organisations, and inspiring a 24,000-strong community of exceptional students, from over 135 countries worldwide. Through our high-quality education, the University helps students on a journey of discovery to realise their potential and join our global network of over 200,000 alumni.
  2. The study, titled ‘Oxidative stress and dysfunctional intracellular traffic linked to an unhealthy diet results in impaired cargo transport in the Retinal Pigment Epithelium (RPE)’ is available online:
  3. The lead investigator is Dr Arjuna Ratnayaka. The study was funded by a Macular Society ( PhD studentship to Dr J. Arjuna Ratnayaka and Professor Andrew J. Lotery at the University of Southampton ( The work was carried out during a 3-year period by Ms Eloise Keeling under the supervision of Dr Ratnayaka, Professor Lotery and Dr David Tumbarello.
  4. Dr Arjuna Ratnayaka is available for interview. Please contact the media relations team to request an interview.
  5. Macular disease is the biggest cause of sight loss in the UK, with around 300 people diagnosed every day. The Macular Society is the only charity determined to beat the fear and isolation of macular disease with world-class research, and the best advice and support. To support people affected by macular disease now, the Macular Society provides a range of support, information and services. The Macular Society’s research programme is focused on finding new treatments and a cure to beat Macular Disease forever.

For further information contact:

Ciara Keenan, Communications Manager, Irish College of Ophthalmologists, Tel: 01 402 2777 / 086 3694427 email:

Josh Bell, Media Relations, University of Southampton, Tel: 023 8059 3212, email:



23rd May 2019