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Revolutionary treatments can prevent blindness

24 April 2007

Revolutionary treatments can prevent blindness

Thousands of people across New Zealand at risk of blindness from macular degeneration, could be spared loss of vision with a new class of drugs.

Macular degeneration (MD) is the leading cause of blindness in New Zealand but, until recently, there had been no effective treatment.

Tauranga-based ophthalmologist, Dr Michael O’Rourke, said a new family of drugs, called anti-VEGF, has been successfully trialled on 1000 people in New Zealand over the past two years. “Anti-VEGF treatment is now available for people who suffer from the ‘wet’ form of macular degeneration,” Dr O’Rourke said. “People with the wet form of macular degeneration account for 90 per cent of vision loss from MD.”

The use of anti-VEGF drugs, to prevent vision loss, will be one of a number of topics presented at a meeting of ophthalmologists (medical eye specialists) in Tauranga from 27-29 April.

“There are ‘dry’ and ‘wet’ forms of MD,” said Melbourne-based ophthalmologist Dr Wilson Heriot, who will lead discussion on the subject at the meeting. “The wet form of MD happens abruptly, where abnormal blood vessels sprout under the retina like toadstools, distorting people’s vision. Then, with continual mushrooming of abnormal blood vessels, the eye haemorrhages, scar tissue forms, and people often lose sight,” he said.

The new treatment for wet MD involves a series of injections of the anti-VEGF drug into the eye. This stops the growth of abnormal blood vessels and helps preserve vision.

“The family of anti-VEGF drugs is extremely effective at treating wet MD. After two years, 90 per cent of patients have most of their vision preserved; they’ve only lost minimal vision,” said Dr Heriot. “Prior to the use of anti-VEGF drugs, people with wet MD went blind.”

Other research being presented at the medical eye specialists’ meeting include: the possible effects of extreme exercise on vision; new ways of imaging the eye to detect holes in the retina; and new techniques relating to macular-hole surgery.

Guidelines around the management of people with diabetic eye disease will also be discussed. New national guidelines for diabetic screening just released in New Zealand, include directives relating to diabetic retinopathy.

“These guidelines outline how often a person with diabetes should have their eyes checked, how many photos of the retina should be taken, and who should look at those photos,” said Dr O’Rourke. “Historically, every eye clinic in New Zealand did their own thing. The benefit for people now, is standardised quality across the country; a benchmark standard for people regardless of where they are treated.”

One of the keynote speakers at the meeting is Professor Timothy G Murray of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, Miami, Florida, USA. Prof Murray is a specialist in diabetic retinopathy and macular degeneration and a world authority on ocular tumours.


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