Study seeks to save sight in infants
For babies born prematurely, vision is at risk. But thanks to a new study, researchers are closer to isolating the causes of retinopathy of prematurity (ROP).
"Retinopathy of prematurity has significant effects on the eyes and vision."
In the study, researchers at The University of Utah's John A. Moran Eye Center focused on cells that produce too much vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF). VEGF is a protein that plays a major role in human growth and development—including growth of the retinas. Too much VEGF can lead to ROP.
Using a rat model to mimic human ROP, researchers explored a gene-delivery approach to regulating VEGF production. The goal: to help prevent ROP without hindering growth and development of other organs in babies.
"With this study, we have found a way to use molecular methods to safely control VEGF as opposed to completely blocking it, which will help combat the negative effects of broad inhibitors when they have access to the blood stream," said Mary Elizabeth Hartnett, M.D., senior investigator.
However, the researchers stressed that they don't propose gene therapy for infants at this point. Rather, the study is a step toward better understanding VEGF overproduction. That understanding, in turn, could lead to effective treatments.
The study represents a positive development for eye care, and is especially welcome news for the one out of eight babies born prematurely every year. According to the March of Dimes, 14,000 to 16,000 are affected by ROP and up to 600 babies a year become blind as a result.
"Vision loss from retinopathy of prematurity has significant effects on the eyes and vision," said Glen Steele, O.D., AOA InfantSEE® committee chair. "However, vision loss also leads to delays in the social, emotional and cognitive development of a child. Carefully controlled studies that would lead to minimizing the effect of retinopathy of prematurity would be welcomed in the optometric community."