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Tears and their potential to detect diseases

Analyzing the possibilities that tears have for detecting diseases, mainly neurological, and thus anticipating their treatment is the aim of an investigation by the University of the Basque Country.

Elena Vecino is professor of Cell Biology and Histology at the University of the Basque Country (UPV) and currently leads the Ophthalmology-Experimental Biology group of scientists that develops the tear project and its possible potential to detect diseases.

Tears, he explains, “are a physiological process involving an aqueous component with proteins, secreted by the lacrimal glands, and then a lipid layer, of fat secreted at the base of the eyelashes by the so-called ‘Meibomian’ glands, which they are located inside the eyelid and end on the ocular surface”, the researcher explains to EFE.

“By flashing, – he adds – these components are mixed, so that the fat remains in the surface area, which prevents the evaporation of the liquid part.”

Tears as a warning sign

But this complex functioning system to set tears in motion also has many possibilities in the field of preventive medicine, as demonstrated by Elena Vecino and her team of researchers.

“Currently, we have sophisticated technology at our disposal, such as the analysis of proteins (proteomics) or fats (lipidomics) dissolved in tears and which provide us with very important data on the functioning of our body”, he explains .

So much so that, in the future, tears could be an alternative to discover certain diseases, although the researcher points out that “to know, for example, the level of glucose or other markers shown by blood tests would not be useful “.

But, as we investigate tears more, “we could discover more specific biomarkers, about the functioning of our organism”.

Biomarkers, or biological markers, are biological molecules that are found in the blood or other fluids or tissues of the body and their presence warns about the normal or abnormal functioning of the organism, and that are used to predict diseases.

“Right now the technology is very sophisticated and it is not possible to extract a tear from every patient and analyze it, but we are working on it so that it is a possibility in the future that even helps to diagnose diseases early”, he indicates.

The information that tears bring

For some time, tears have been used to detect if there is inflammation in the eye, if there are enzymes that degrade eye pathologies, “but now we want to go further and the studies are oriented towards the detection of diseases neurodegenerative”.

And this is so because the cornea is where most of the body’s nerve endings arrive, which is why it is in almost direct contact with the nervous system.

On the other hand, the conjunctiva (white part of the eye) is very vascularized, it has an abundance of blood vessels, “for this reason, if substances are released from the vascular system (circulatory system), we can also detect them in the tear” .

For the researcher, this connection of the tear with the vascular, nervous and glandular systems offers a great source of information, although for now in a very small volume.

This research group of the UPV has been working for more than 20 years and thanks to its studies it has been possible to learn about many of the detection techniques through predictive biomarkers.

The biologist states: “Currently, tear analysis is being developed to provide an immediate diagnosis, devices that allow simple and rapid analysis of some of these markers” that would indicate a normal state of health or some physical problem.

But he emphasizes: “We need a larger population to be sure that what we have seen in the pilot study is fulfilled and that these markers are really valid, and the next thing would be to see if they are predictive, that is, if for example , the biomarkers in a person’s tears indicate that in the future they may have Parkinson’s, so we could say that they are markers of the pathology before the disease is detected, then they would become early detectors of the disease”.

And the aim of this early detection of the disease is to be able to treat them medically before it appears, so that the patient would gain time for treatment in the development of his disease.

Detect neurological disease

The studies of the Veí team are immersed in the prediction through tears of neurological diseases, “we started with Parkinson’s, but we could extend them to Alzheimer’s and other pathologies such as prostate or breast cancer “.

The professor of Cell Biology at the UPV is proud that she and her research team were “the first to publish a pilot study individually, that is to say, we were pioneers in trying to detect individually the markers” to recognize each origin.

The scientist maintains that it is good to cry “because it washes the ocular surface.” Having your eye lubricated is good, but putting an onion in front of you to cry, I don’t know if it’s good, also crying from laughter is always good, but between crying from sadness and not crying, I don’t know what’s better.”

Elena Vecino states: “Physiologically, the conclusion has been reached that it is good to cry for our eyes; otherwise, it would not have been evolutionarily preserved. If you chose to cry, that’s good.”

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