LANSING, Mich. (WLNS) — Researchers at Michigan State University have found a link between a common diabetes eye disease and cholesterol.

The discovery could lead to early detection and prevention.

The researchers published their findings in Diabetologia, the official journal of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes. The study was funded by the National Eye Institute and included contributions from researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Case Western Reserve University and Western University of Health Sciences.

Researchers discovered that diabetes, age and other metabolic issues can lead to a build-up of cholesterol in the retina of the eye. The retina translates light into electrical signals to send to the brain. The built-up cholesterol “tends to crystalize,” which in turn contributes to diabetic retinopathy.

George Abela, chief of the MSU Division of Cardiology, said that these cholesterol crystals are like the crystals found in atherosclerotic plaque that can form in arteries and cause heart attacks, a finding discovered in his lab at MSU. He helped the research team identify ways to scan retinas using modified tissue preparation for scanning electron microscopy. This also helps researchers analyze the composition of the crystals, which typically result when there is too much cholesterol in one place.

Julia Busik, MSU professor emeritus of physiology, said diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of preventable blindness. Within 20 years of developing diabetes, every person will “will have some degree of retinopathy.”

“We are actively pursuing what can be done to lower cholesterol in the retina,” said Tim Dorweiler, a doctoral candidate in the Molecular, Cellular and Integrated Physiology Program at MSU and first author of the paper. “The retina is a very isolated organ, just like the brain, and both have a blood barrier that separates them from the rest of the body. This is what makes the retina hard to study and extremely complex.”