Scientists at Lancaster University hope their work on a little known carbohydrate called keratan sulphate will help save the sight of thousands of people.
Its importance is only now being appreciated as it is discovered in more and more locations throughout the human body - in cartilage, blood, the brain, and the eye. But no two keratan sulphate "strings" are alike, making it extremely difficult to study.
The Lancaster team has already done important work on human cartilage and how its "shock absorber" function relates to the presence of keratan sulphate. Now they are turning their attention to the cornea where the substance again plays a key role.
The researchers found that the cornea maintains its essential transparency because of complex keratan sulphate "spacers" which lock together the fibres in a healthy cornea. Where that locking mechanism has broken down, the transparency is destroyed causing the clouding known as macular corneal dystrophy which ultimately leads to blindness.
The Wellcome Trust has just agreed to continue funding this work for another two years and the aim is to devise an accurate 3D molecular model of the complex spacers.
This will help scientists understand how one keratan sulphate molecule recognises another and how they "talk" to one another.
Recognition is the key to their peculiar characteristic of clustering or linking together for yet another area where keratan sulphate plays a crucial role is on the surface of cells, very often cancerous cells.