Research Inspires Hope for Glaucoma

Matt Windsor, PhD

To Americans, there are few things more terrifying than going blind. Glaucoma is a particularly scary vision-stealing disease because without screening it offers no warning to those it strikes, causing significant, irreversible vision loss before a patient notices something is wrong. But in January, in honor of Glaucoma Awareness Month, the vision-research community reflects on the past year’s progress toward managing this challenging disease.

As with all diseases, progress is dependent on research. First, it looks into understanding what causes the condition, and then into therapies that prevent, treat or cure it. Glaucoma research, spanning decades, has successfully identified what causes the disorder. Briefly, glaucoma is most commonly a result of too much pressure within the eye, formally known as elevated intraocular pressure (IOP). Like a balloon that pops when it is filled with too much gas, the eye can suffer damage — leading to vision loss — if there is too much fluid inside it.

Several treatment options, both surgical and pharmaceutical, have been developed to slow the disease’s progression. While all of these treatments are effective at lowering IOP, none of them addresses the root cause of it, slowed drainage (a clog) of fluid from the eye through a tissue called the trabecular meshwork.

2017 was a landmark year for glaucoma researchers, specialists and patients, because it saw the first drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration that treat the disease at its source. VyzultaTM is the result of two collaborations: between glaucoma research and the field of nitric oxide, subject of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine; and between the pharmaceutical companies Nicox and Bausch + Lomb. The second drug, RhopressaTM, was developed by Aerie Pharmaceuticals.

Aerie Pharmaceuticals is a classic example of how the American research and innovation system works. The company was founded by David Epstein, M.D., lifelong glaucoma researcher and former chair of Duke University’s Department of Ophthalmology. Through support from the National Institutes of Health, Duke and private funding, Aerie navigated RhopressaTM down the drug pipeline — and soon into the eyes of glaucoma patients.

While glaucoma is far from cured, this story of progress against it clearly demonstrates the necessity of long-term government funding of research. We must all continue to advocate for robust funding to ensure that the best ideas toward combating disease have the resources they need to shed light on the still untreatable. Because as scary as the thought of going blind is, the possibility of leaving a cure hidden from our collective sight may be worse.

As the world’s largest professional society of vision scientists, the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO) is proud of its role in supporting research into understanding the visual system and preventing, treating and curing its disorders.

Matt Windsor, PhD, is senior manager of science communications at ARVO.

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Without continued support for health research, many of the most promising young scientists, their ideas and a myriad of potentially life-changing scientific breakthroughs will vanish into oblivion.
Paul Marinec, PhD; University of California San Francisco