Shalom Life | April 18, 2014

New Infrared Light May Help Fight Tay Sachs

Technology could shed light on disease common among Ashkenazi Jews.

By: Bev Spritzer

Published: September 3rd, 2010 in News » World

New Infrared Light May Help Fight Tay Sachs

A technique using near infrared light enables scientists to look even further into cells, potentially opening a door in the fights against cancer and many other diseases, such as Tay Sachs.

Tay Sachs, most common among Jews of Eastern European dissent, is a recessive genetic disorder that causes the deterioration of mental and physical abilities beginning when an infant is six months old. If both parents happen to be carriers, there is a 25% risk of giving birth to a child affected with Tay Sachs disease, which typically results in the child’s death by the age of four.

To get to the bottom of things, chemists from the University of Central Florida, led by Professor Kevin Belfield, used near infrared light and fluorescent dye to take pictures of cells and tumors deep within tissue, Science Daily reported.

The chemists specifically targeted lysosomes, which act as a cell’s thermostat and waste processors, and which have been linked to a variety of diseases, including types of mental illnesses and cancers.

"This is a game-changer," said Belfield. "Until now, there was no real way to study lysosomes because existing techniques have severe limitations. But the probe we developed is stable, which allows for longer periods of imaging."

Current imaging probes work for only a few minutes. They cannot infiltrate deep tissue, are sensitive to pH levels and have poor water solubility. Belfield's technique gets around these issues by using near infrared light.

Once the researchers identified the correct light frequency, Science Daily reported, they were able to take images of the lysosomes for hours at a time, thereby allowing them to piece together the lysosome’s role in diseases like Tay Sachs.

"We've come up with something that should make a huge difference in finding answers to some very complicated conditions," Belfield said.

Tay Sachs disease is named after British ophthalmologist Warren Tay, who first described the retina changes associated with the disease (red spot on the retina of the eye) in 1881, and the American neurologist Bernard Sachs of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York who described the cellular changes of Tay-Sachs, and noted the increased prevalence among the Eastern European Jewish population, in 1887.

In fact, all patients with Tay Sachs disease possess this characteristic red spot at the back of the retina, which proves to be helpful with the initial diagnosis.

The development of improved testing methods over the years has allowed neurologists to diagnose Tay Sachs and other neurological diseases with greater precision, but Tay Sachs specifically can be misdiagnosed at first, because many clinicians are not aware that it is not exclusively a Jewish disease.

Belfield's findings, which include comparisons to the only other two imaging probes on the market, are published in this month's Journal of the American Chemical Society, a prestigious chemistry journal. The project has been funded by the National Institutes of Health's National Institute for Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering.

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