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22 Oct 2019

Tear samples might be the next screening method used for diabetic peripheral neuropathy, new research from UNSW Sydney suggests.  

The study, recently published in The Ocular Surface, is the first to show that peripheral nerve damage – often the earliest sign of the condition – can be traced in tear film. 

Diabetic peripheral neuropathy is a debilitating condition that affects people with diabetes. It is the most common complication of diabetes and affects almost 50 per cent of diabetics. It occurs when chronically high blood sugar damages the nerves connecting the brain and spinal cord to the rest of the body.

Symptoms include pain, numbness, imbalance, weakness, pins and needles, and recurring foot ulcers. 

“We found that people with type 1 diabetic peripheral neuropathy – which can result in recurring ulcers of the feet and in severe cases require amputation – have reduced levels of a protein known as ‘substance P’ in their tear film,” said Dr Maria Markoulli, senior author of the study.

“Peripheral neuropathy is notoriously difficult to detect early on and requires specialty training.

“What we’re proposing with this method is something that will be done quickly, non-invasively, and potentially could be done even by a non-specialist.”

The researchers tested the concentration of two proteins (called neuropeptides) in the tear film of people with type 1 and type 2 diabetes compared to control groups. The study consisted of almost 100 participants.

While the researchers found that those with type 1 diabetic peripheral neuropathy had less ‘substance P’ protein in their tear film, the results did not suggest that type 2 diabetes have the same biomarkers.

While the results are promising for those with type 1 diabetes, further study is required before tear testing becomes available clinically. In particular, the researchers hope to study substance P loss over time according to varying severities of peripheral neuropathy. 


Published: 22 Oct 2019