Stopping macular degeneration

July 23, 2009 3:42:07 PM PDT
It's the leading cause of vision loss for people over 60 -- macular degeneration. This eye disease slowly steals a person's eyesight, making reading, driving and every day living difficult. It's estimated nearly 18 million Americans will have the blinding condition by 2050. Treatment typically involved monthly injections. But now, a new technique could save a person's eyesightFor Judie Janes, this technique has made it possible to resume her sewing hobby.

"I couldn't thread a needle, couldn't see the needle to thread it on my sewing machine," Judie said.

Judie was diagnosed with wet macular degeneration shich caused abnormal growth of blood vessels under her retina and the vessels were bleeding.

"Vision is not something you can take for granted," Judie said.

Traditionally, doctors inject a drug into the eye that stops the vessels from growing, but it doesn't last.

"It's a big impact on lifestyle for the patients," said Dr. Peter Sonkin, a retina specialist at Baptist Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee. "They have to come in once a month, sometimes for a year or two or longer."

In a clinical trial, doctors used a small probe to deliver targeted low-dose radiation to the eye. The goal -- to damage abnormal the blood vessels without affecting the healthy parts of the eye.

"The amount of radiation exposure to the body from going through this procedure is less than one would get flying from New York to Los Angeles in a plane," said retina specialist Dr.Carl Awh, also at Baptist Hospital,.

Surgeons then inject a dose of the traditional medication. They say the radiation-drug combo is more powerful, lasts longer and could eliminate the need for monthly injections.

"Nothing's blurry," Judie said. "I passed the eye test, and you know you can't fake an eye test."

Judie checks her vision every morning. She went from nearly legally blind -- 20/100 -- to 20/20 after surgery.

"Every morning after I do my little grid test, I look at that prayer and it lets me know how blessed I really am," she said.

Patients are sedated for the outpatient surgery which takes about an hour. The technique is in the final stages of approval in Europe and should be available there in August. If the trial is successful in the U.S., the treatment could be available in less than two years.