Modeling Age-Related Macular Degeneration

Researchers at Utah State University have successfully demonstrated that hagfish slime proteins can accurately replicate membranes in the human eye.

Professor Elizabeth Vargis and her team study a condition called age-related macular degeneration that causes damage to the retina, making it difficult to see. They study in vitro models, or a model developed in a laboratory setting, of Bruch’s membrane, a layer in the retina of the eye, to compare the natural aging process to the effects of AMD. 

Creating an in vitro model of Bruch’s membrane that mimics both its healthy and aged states help researchers understand the relationship between physical changes via aging and AMD. The ideal model should be smooth, nonporous and capable of supporting cell growth. It should also replicate the changes that occur with age in thickness, stiffness and permeability.

In previous work with USU Biology Professor Justin Jones, researchers manipulated spider silk proteins to replicate Bruch’s membrane, but challenges in isolating proteins and limited adjustability led to the exploration of other materials. Collaboration with Jones determined that hagfish slime proteins are the best choice for replicating Bruch’s membrane while still maintaining desirable properties. Vargis and her team were able to properly grow retinal cells on hagfish slime proteins and prove that the protein’s behavior changes as the membrane mimics stages of aging and disease.


Emilee Rickabaugh, Dillon Weatherston, Thomas I. Harris, Justin A. Jones, Elizabeth Vargis. Engineering a Biomimetic In Vitro Model of Bruch’s Membrane Using Hagfish Slime Intermediate Filament Proteins. ACS Biomaterials Science & Engineering, 2023; 9 (8): 5051 DOI: 10.1021/acsbiomaterials.3c00411

Utah State University. “From hagfish to membrane: Modeling age-related macular degeneration.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 13 September 2023. <>.

Materials provided by Utah State University. Original written by Sydney Dahle. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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