Macular Degeneration a Growing Problem

Virginia Knepper-Doyle has had about 45 injections into her left eye over the past two years to prevent her from going blind. But last week, her doctor gave her disappointing news.

“It’s not working,” said Knepper-Doyle, 80, frustration obvious in her voice. “The injections had stopped any further deterioration. But suddenly I had no central vision left, and I guess that means the medications don’t work anymore.”

Knepper-Doyle, an artist who lives with her husband and son in Belvedere, has age-related macular degeneration, which causes the rods and cones that sense light and send visual signals to the brain to stop working. Age-related macular degeneration is the most common cause of blindness among adults in the United States, afflicting about 2 million people.

And those numbers are only going to climb as the Baby Boomers reach their 70s and 80s. The National Eye Institute estimates there will be 3 million people with age-related macular degeneration by 2020.

There are drug treatments that can protect the rods and cones, which are called photoreceptors, for a time. But for the vast majority of patients, there no treatment to restore vision once it’s been lost. At least one drug, Lucentis, appears to restore vision in some patients with a type of age-related macular degeneration.

Struggling for answers

So doctors and scientists are scrambling to come up with treatments – from the relatively mundane, like drugs already on the market that might prevent further vision damage, to the seemingly outrageous, like telescopes implanted into the eye.

In the Bay Area alone, researchers are studying chemicals that have helped blind mice see, and they’re developing prosthetic devices that would replace the rods and cones with electronic chips. Other scientists are looking at stem cells as a novel technique for protecting or replacing cells in the retina.

“As our population is aging, the number of people affected is going to grow. And you have people who are otherwise healthy but they can’t read, they can’t drive – that’s a huge burden on society,” said Ingrid Caras, a science officer at the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which has pumped about $50 million into funding for stem cell research to treat macular degeneration.

“Macular degeneration is very high on the priority list of diseases that need attention,” Caras said.

Prevalence after 80

More than 1.3 million people older than 40 are blind in the United States, according to Prevent Blindness America. Most of those people – almost 950,000 of them – become blind after age 80.

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