Glaucoma and Macular Degeneration: Researching and Treating Serious Eye Diseases

Holland Doran

Age is one of the biggest risk factors for developing glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration, eye diseases that can lead to permanent blindness. As the population is aging at a faster rate, research is offering new less-invasive, cost-effective treatments to restrict these diseases.

“Globally, glaucoma is a very hot area for research right now, and I believe we are due for a major breakthrough in how we treat glaucoma in the coming years,” said R. Grant Morshedi, M.D., assistant professor in the Department of Ophthalmology in the UAMS College of Medicine and glaucoma specialist at the UAMS Harvey & Bernice Jones Eye Institute.

The goal of treating glaucoma is to lower the eye pressure to prevent ongoing damage to the optic nerve, and many patients can be successfully treated with eye drops or laser procedures performed in a doctor’s office.

“Traditionally glaucoma surgery was reserved for patients with advanced glaucoma or pressures that are very high,” Morshedi said. “That is certainly still the case for some types of glaucoma surgery. However, several newer surgical procedures have been developed in recent years that are less-invasive and more appropriate for patients with earlier stages of the disease – mild to moderate glaucoma.”

“I believe we are due for a major breakthrough in how we treat glaucoma in the coming years.”

Two of these newer surgical procedures are called Trabectome and iStent, and are offered by Morshedi. They help control eye pressure, which is important to reduce vision loss for glaucoma patients. They can also easily be combined with cataract surgery to reduce dependence on eye drops for pressure control.

 A new treatment for age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is being developed at the institute under the direction of Nalini Bora, Ph.D., director of research for the institute’s Pat & Willard Walker Eye Research Center and professor and vice chair for research of the Department of Ophthalmology; and Puran Bora, Ph.D., professor of ophthalmology, as they look for better ways to treat AMD.

The treatment contains anti-inflammatory peptides that can prevent AMD by almost 70 percent. They are making this into an eye drop that they hope will be a better alternative than the painful and expensive injections used now.

“Although there are some treatments, and clinicians are treating patients with injections in the eyes, there are several side effects,” Nalini Bora said. “Nobody likes to have injections in the eye and these injections can have many problems. Also, about 25 percent of AMD patients do not respond to the treatment. So there is a need for more research. And, new reports show that after a while, there is damage to the retina.”

The eye drop treatment could changes things for both patients and physicians, Puran Bora said.

“Patients can put the drop in themselves and they don’t have to go the doctor,” he said. “That’s the good thing about the eye drop – it won’t cost that much because it can be delivered by the patients themselves.”

The Boras are also working with gene therapy that involves replacing the particular defective gene causing the AMD with a fully functional gene directly in the patient’s eye.

“The advantage of using gene therapy is that there is a slow release of the agent in the eye so it lasts for a long time,” Nalini Bora said.