Glaucoma breakthrough ‘within 10 years’

Published: November 13, 2006 | 5040th good news item since 2003

A breakthrough therapy for glaucoma is less than a decade away thanks to genetic advancements in the field, an internationally renowned eye specialist says.

Treatments for the debilitating eye disease traditionally have focused on lowering the pressure in the eye to slow the death of nerve cells. [Coping With Glaucoma]

But US glaucoma expert Harry Quigley, from the Wilmer Eye Institute at John Hopkins University, says genetic research is where the real advancements are being made.

Asked when a cure could appear, Prof Quigley said, “not a year, but I think it’s likely like within a decade we’ll have a measurable, new therapy that significantly impacts a very large number of glaucoma patients.

“These are very exciting times.”

More than 300,000, mostly older Australians have glaucoma, a condition which causes nerve fibres linking the eyeball to the brain to die.

Speaking at the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Ophthalmologists Congress in Sydney, the specialist outlined the areas showing most promise for beating the disease.

Researchers have had success with gene therapy, working out how to use a virus to insert genes into the eyes of rats with glaucoma to slow down cell death.

Gene therapy has proved to be dangerous, with several people dying or developing disease brought on by the virus in initial trials.

However, Prof Quigley believes the eye, as a controlled environment, will be one of the first places to successfully do such therapy if it ever advances.

Research into stem cells, the so-called building blocks of all human tissue, is the other area showing greatest promise.

But the scientist says stem cells extracted from adults, not the controversial embryonic form currently being debated in Canberra, that hold that best chance of a glaucoma cure.

“Using stem cells from an embryo is a bit like playing golf with a gorilla, they’re impossible to control,” Prof Quigley said.

Adult cells are much more manageable and scientists already have worked out how to remove and safely multiply them in a test tube as a potential replacement for dying cells.

“These cells could be engineered to produce the chemicals we want, so when we put them back inside a living eye they produce a drug for you,” Prof Quigley said.

Another idea is to transform them into new nerve cells which could, one day at least, partly restore lost vision in people with advanced eye disease. [Glaucoma: A Patient’s Guide to the Disease]

“This is very much pie in the sky at the moment but we’re part way there,” he said.

“We just have to finish it off.”

Published in Science & Technology
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