In the U.S., there are over 3.4 million people who are either blind or visually impaired. Global figures exceed over 2.2 billion people in this group. And even worse, interventions could prevent nearly half of these cases worldwide. Not only does a lack of access to care exist in many parts of the world, but treating vision loss has been challenging. Vision loss therapies have been generally lacking for many with serious eye disease. But fortunately, some innovative breakthroughs are being reported that may soon change that.
It’s not surprising that medical science and technologies are making some incredible progress as of late. Among those that have potential for treating vision loss, gene therapies and stem cell research have significant potential. University researchers and private companies alike are actively exploring these as vision loss therapies for those with various eye disorders. At the same time, other collaborations are leveraging technologies to enhance training and access to better vision care. If these prove to be effective, the incidence of vision impairment could literally drop by more than a third.
“By working together, we can significantly accelerate our work to train eye care professionals across Asia. With global blindness projected to triple over the next three decades, training the next generation of ophthalmologists is more critical than ever.” – Derek Hodkey, President and CEO of Orbis
Treating Vision Loss Through Training
One of the most notable challenges in treating vision loss is a lack of trained eyecare professionals. This is especially true in middle and low-income countries, and likewise, in Asia overall. While such outreach has been difficult, innovative technologies allow this to be tackled from a different perspective. The use of telehealth and telemedicine has the potential too greatly change how eye professionals can be trained. If adequate providers can be trained in the latest vision loss therapies, significant progress can be made.
Recently, Santen Pharmaceuticals Company Ltd and Orbis International joined forces to accomplish this type of program. Their 10-year partnership looks to boost the number of eyecare professionals worldwide by using digital technology platforms. Specifically, Orbis brings its Cybersight telemedicine platform to the table that can be utilized for professional training methods. Likewise, Orbis also has its Flying Eye Hospital, a fully accredited MD-10 airplane teaching hospital, as well. This could have a tremendous impact in certain parts of the world.
“[Gene targeting] is a new way of approaching these diseases. The current methods — invasive surgeries or life-long injections into the eye — only prevent the disease from advancing and often have serious complications.” – Courtney Griffin, PhD Researcher, Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation
Cutting Edge Genetic Vision Loss Therapies
Enhanced training can help greatly with prevention. But at the same time, vision loss therapies are needed for those who already have disease. Retinal degeneration, cancers, and conditions like diabetes can all cause progressive visual loss and blindness. Therefore, other investigators are exploring how gene therapies might be useful in treating vision loss. If genes could be changed so that the process causing vision loss could be halted, millions could benefit. It appears that some early evidence in this area is good reason for optimism.
Researchers at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation have recently identified a specific gene that can run off abnormal blood vessel growth in the retina. This abnormal growth plays a notable part of vision loss in many patients suffering blindness. The researchers, by applying an experimental compound, turned off the genetic switch stimulating abnormal blood vessel growth in mice. Better yet, the compound had no effect in normal retinal blood vessels. If this is similarly beneficial in humans, then it could represent one of the most promising vision loss therapies.
“We hope to look at the safety of gel injection in a clinical trial of retinoblastoma in children, and if that proves safe, we could move on to see if our methodology can reduce or eliminate these tumors.” – Barbara Savoldo, MD, PHD, Professor of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology, UNC School of Medicine
Other Innovative Vision Loss Therapies
In addition to genetic breakthrough, immunologic and stem cell research are also offering new treatments. At the University of North Carolina-Lineberger, researchers have developed a new way in treating vision loss associated with retinoblastoma. Retinoblastoma is a treatable form of cancer affecting the retina. However, even with treatment, 5 percent of patients lose their vision. However, a combination of immune T-cells that target cancer proteins with an immune booster seems to help this. Their study showed 60 percent of mice with retinoblastoma treated with this therapy retained their vision through the study. This form of precision medicine thus offers promise.
Private commercial innovation is also occurring in these cutting-edge areas. AIVITA Biomedical Incorporated is known for its efforts in developing cancer and coronavirus vaccines. But it is also exploring the use of stem cell therapies in treating vision loss. In mice with retinal degeneration from retinal pigment epithelial dysfunction, stem cell transplants offer hope. These transplants resulted in photoreceptor growth and preservation of vision in recent trials. Stem cell treatments may also be one of the available vision loss therapies soon.
“Leveraging our expertise in stem cell growth and differentiation, I’m excited to see the promise of our technology platform in potential therapeutics for vision loss.” – Hans Keirstead, PhD., CEO of AIVITA
Vision Loss Therapies – From Mice to Men
As is evident, much of the research and breakthrough in vision loss therapies have been performed in mice. However, multiple new ways of preventing and treating vision loss are being explored. And many are showing positive results that offer hope for the future. As these studies advance, human trials will begin. If similar results are seen with adverse events, then vision loss therapies of the future will look much different from today. Between public and private efforts, these innovations have the potential to make a tremendous impact on vision care.
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