Kalter: Breakthrough could inhibit eyesight loss

September 12, 2017

Local researchers may have found a way to identify one of the leading causes of blindness with a simple blood test, opening doors to better treatments for a condition that is incurable and often undetectable in early stages, according to a new study from Mass. Eye and Ear.

Patients with macular degeneration — the most common cause of vision loss for people 60 and older — are diagnosed by specialists through dilated eye exams. The condition is often caused by a combination of genetics and external factors, which has made it difficult to develop a lab test that can pinpoint it.

But a preliminary study showed a group of the smallest molecules in our blood, called metabolites, are significantly different in people with macular degeneration. The tiny molecules are a manifestation of genetics, our environments and microorganisms in the body.

“People may ignore subtle symptoms and they don’t come to be seen by an eye doctor until it’s very late,” said Dr. Deeba Husain, an ophthalmologist at Mass. Eye and Ear and lead researcher. She said the test would not only offer early detection, it “could actually point to things we should be looking at and potentially offer targets to treat patients.”

Husain and her team found that these molecules also varied based on the stage of the disease, according to the paper published today in the journal Ophthalmology.

“The idea is to diagnose it early and find a treatment that will preserve vision and prevent vision loss,” Husain said.

There are few treatment options for the two main types of macular degeneration. Eye injections are used for the “wet” variety, caused by swelling and bleeding of blood vessels. Those who suffer from the “dry” type, caused by the deterioration of the retina, currently have no forms of treatment.

Researchers hope that by identifying these molecules, there may be new ways to slow the condition and potentially offer a cure in the future.

Mark Masterson, 71, of Lincoln, was one of the 90 patients who took part in Husain’s recent trial. He noticed an odd change in his vision while golfing, when the ball seemed to be hovering about four inches above the ground. It took about six weeks to get definitive test results.

“When you can’t see, and you start to lose your sight, it’s pretty damn scary,” said Masterson, a retired school superintendent. “If they can identify a marker in the blood, that’s huge. The critical thing is to greatly retard the process.”

Husain said there is still a long way to go before researchers figure out how effective the test will be. The next step is to further examine the mechanism behind the disease to better understand how new treatments may be developed.

“A lot of work has been done in this area, but it is a very hard task,” Husain said. “That’s why this was so exciting.”