As far as millions of people with retinal disease are concerned, Rajender Varma's a sight for sore eyes.

That's because the Sam Houston State University chemistry treacher and reasearcher wages unceasing war against retinal disease, fighting the unwelcome intruder with obscure molecules only a scientist could love.

Varma, who also does research at the Houston Area Research Center in The Woodlands, recently won the 1996 Janet Margolin Award for his work with nitric oxide, a molecule that has scientists salivating over its potential. So what's the big deal about nitric oxide?

"That's the wonderful molecule that regulates blood pressure in human beings," Varma enthused. "We want to take something like nitric oxide, which occurs naturally in the body, and use it to combat ocular disorders. We want a molecule that the body doesn't recognize as foreign or harmful, and which has minimal side effects."

Varma isn't alone in his admiration of nitric oxide, which "Science" magazine voted Molecule of the Year in 1992.

Nitric oxide is the first molecule known to act as a "biological messenger" in mammals. It has been found to kill foreign invaders in the immune response system, it's a major biological component of long-term memory and most importantly to Varma, it maintains blood pressure by dilating blood vessels.

That last trait gives nitric oxide the potential to treat ocular hypertension and ischemic retinopathy, conditions that lead to glaucoma and retinopathy, respectively. Conventional drugs can treat either condition, but not without unwanted side effects.

Varma hopes to develop a new, safer class of drugs that treats both conditions with minimal side effects. He and George Chiou, a colleague at Texas A&M University, are working on derivatives of L-arginine, a widely occurring, non-toxic, natural amino acid. While that means little to most folks, L-arginine can be converted to nitric oxide, the benfits of which have already been stated.

Chiou, a professor who heads the department of medical pharmacology and toxicology at Texas A&M, is busily testing L-arginine at the moment, and so far, results are good. Chiou said the L-arginine appears to work as advertized - boosting blood flow to the retina while reducing eye pressure.

"Since the population is getting older, more and more eye diseases are appearing," Chiou said, adding that retinal disease afflicts older people, mostly. Figures from Retina Research Foundation, of Houston, indicate blindness spreads at twice the rate of population growth as Americans continue living longer.

"Retinal diseases are the leading cause of blindness among the elderly, and the population is aging," said Patricia Bloom of the Retina Research Foundation, of Houston, a supporter of Varma's work. "Therefore, the incidence of retinal disease will increase dramatically."

L-arginine's effect on retinal diseases inspired Varma to patent derivatives of the amino acid, which he has developed in forms that can be safely applied to the eye and readily absorbed. Unfortunately, Chiou said, the cost to develop and certify a new drug runs in the millions.

"We need to find someone who's willing to develop this," Chiou said. "I think it would be a very useful project for investors."

Statistics from the Retina Research Foundation show some 14 million diabetics in the United States are susceptible to diabetic eye disorders, and 40 percent of them suffer retina diseases to some extent. Another 10 million or so are afflicted with macular degeneration, a retinal disorder aflicting older people mostly. The National Eye Institute puts the cost of eye disorders and blindness in the United States at $22 billion.

Patricia Bloom, of the Retina Research Foundation, said private funding is often the catalyst that leads to government funding, then eventually, funding from drug companies. She said private research grants are more important than ever given the sharp decline in research funding from the federal government.

"This system is beginning to break down; the funding is beginning to dry up" Bloom said. "Eight years ago the federal government funded 30 percent of all medical reasearch applicants, now it's down to single digits. In the context of that background Dr. Varma is a big hero in our eyes."


Written by Paul Sturrock. For more information, contact Dr. Rajender Varma at 409-294-1587, or e-mail

May 23, 1996