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This is what macular degeneration looks like…

image-tools (96)Image: courtesy of CERA PhD student and artist Erica Tandori.

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the leading cause of central vision loss in people over the age of 50 in Australia. There is no cure, but researchers at the Centre for Eye Research Australia (CERA) are working on several promising new treatment options.

Over a thousand people from all over Australia and overseas have put up their hands to be part of a world-first clinical trial for early AMD, led by CERA’s Professor Robyn Guymer. One of those volunteers was Patricia Keith, a 73 year-old retired ophthalmic nurse from Melbourne.

“When I was first diagnosed with the early stages of AMD, I felt hopeless and a bit depressed,” said Patricia. “I used to worry constantly if my vision was getting worse and would check every day for any signs of progression.”

Since being accepted into the trial for a new nanosecond laser treatment, Patricia feels like she has finally regained some control of her life. “Sight is so precious and I treasure my independence so anything I could do to preserve this was worth a shot. Why sit back and do nothing?”

The laser treatment, created by Australian company Ellex Medical Lasers Ltd, is quick, painless and has shown some very encouraging early results.

Other CERA researchers are looking at improving treatment options for people with the more advanced stages of the disease.

‘Wet’ type AMD is currently treated with regular injections into the eye. While these injections are often effective in stabilising vision, potential side effects include a risk of infection and for patients, they can be uncomfortable and painful.

“We are investigating novel ultrasound drug delivery devices and nanoparticle technologies as an alternative to injections. If the new drug delivery systems prove successful, they will provide a revolution in the practical management of many eye diseases,” said Dr Hong Zhang, Head of CERA’s Drug Delivery research unit.

Meanwhile in the Neuroregeneration unit, Dr Alice Pébay is leading a team of stem cell scientists with the intention to model AMD and other diseases in the laboratory. The researchers create stem cells from skin or hair cells and then turn these into retinal cells. “Our goal will be to grow new eye cells in the laboratory, to understand the mechanisms leading to the degeneration observed in AMD and find novel drug or cell treatments for AMD,” said Dr Pébay.

The message for patients is clear: hope is in sight. “A decade ago, there were no effective treatments for AMD and now, we have good treatments for wet AMD and are working towards treatments for early AMD,” said Prof Guymer.

“Combined with our knowledge about prevention (quit smoking and maintain a healthy lifestyle), we’re well on our way to beating the most common cause of blindness in Australia.”

26 May – 1 June is Macular Degeneration Awareness Week, an initiative of the Macular Disease Foundation.

The pilot study of the nanosecond laser was conducted in 2010-2012 with support from the Victorian Government. The current Laser intervention in Early AMD (LEAD) trial is supported by funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and in partnership with Bupa Health Foundation.