Glaucoma is a group of diseases that damages your optic nerves, the cables that connect the back of your eyes to your brain. This silent thief of sight causes damage slowly. Fluid buildup and breakdown of drainage-regulating tissue create eye pressure that can generate irreparable harm before you experience any vision impairment. That’s why techniques to diagnose glaucoma earlier and ensure patients receive appropriate treatment are necessary.
Watch out for Typical Risk Factors
Age is a clear risk factor of open-angle glaucoma, the most common form of this eye disease. It’s rare among Americans under age 50, but it strikes nearly 8 percent of those over 80. Glaucoma is about five times more common in African-Americans than Caucasians and has an earlier, more rapid course in that minority population. Family history also makes a strong influence. Your risk of developing open-angle glaucoma is about 10 times higher if a parent or sibling has it. Having an afflicted identical twin makes your likelihood even higher.
Unfortunately, a single cause rarely is to blame. In the majority of cases, experts theorize that many small genetic differences that vary from one person to another impact individual disease risk. Scientists believe that lifestyle, environment and other factors also lead to glaucoma. In women, research has linked reaching menopause at earlier ages to increased risk.
Treatment can delay but not cure vision loss, making glaucoma a leading cause of blindness in the U.S. It affects more than 2.7 million Americans and over 60 million people worldwide. By 2020, the Glaucoma Research Foundation expects the disease toll to reach nearly 80 million. Luckily, experts are inventing new sight-saving diagnosis and therapeutic methods.
Implanted Sensor Checks Eye Pressure
Monitoring eye pressure is key to early glaucoma detection. Much like blood pressure, it fluctuates throughout your day. Increased intra-ocular pressure can damage the optic nerve — often without pain or warning signs. Current eye pressure tests require visiting an ophthalmologist. This means that patients at risk for glaucoma may get just one chance at diagnosis per year. Frequently, eye doctors discover it too late for treatment to be effective.
So University of Washington engineers in Seattle are pioneering an innovation for ophthalmologists to implant inside the eye permanently with an artificial lens during cataract surgery. This patent-pending high-tech information center incorporates a pressure sensor and radio chip with an antenna that circles the artificial lens perimeter. The sensor tracks hard-to-measure eye pressure changes continuously. Using radio frequency waves, it transmits raw data wirelessly to a handheld tool or smartphone app that does the heavy computational work.This clever device even alerts you when to consult your eye doctor.
Senior author Karl Böhringer, professor of electrical engineering and bioengineering, says that no one has ever embedded electronics inside the lens of the eye before. This new prototype shows that it’s possible in principle without requiring additional surgery. The research team paired cataract and glaucoma procedures because these conditions affect a similar aging population.
Co-developer Tueng Shen, professor of ophthalmology, says they’re working on making the device simple, reliable and ideal for clinical use so every cataract surgery could incorporate it. The current prototype is too large to fit into a lens, but the team is confident it can downscale the technology. Tests have confirmed that it works when embedded in flexible silicon artificial lenses.
Special Contact Lenses Dispense Medication
UCLA School of Dentistry scientists have created a drug delivery system that may improve patients’ ability to comply with the glaucoma eye drop dosing schedules that their doctors prescribe. Tiny soccer-ball-shaped nanodiamonds, byproducts of conventional mining and refining processes, are approximately five nanometers in diameter. They can bind a wide spectrum of drug compounds and enable steady medication release over time.
Dr. Dean Ho, professor of oral biology and medicine and co-director of the Jane and Jerry Weintraub Center for Reconstructive Biotechnology, led the research. Scientists bound timolol maleate, a common glaucoma-fighting drug, with nanodiamonds. Then they embedded this combination onto contact lenses so lysozyme, an enzyme that’s abundant in tears, will activate the medication’s release.
Such an amazing breakthrough shows great promise for sustained glaucoma drug delivery. A human-cell study verified the activity of released timolol. Even with embedded nanodiamonds, the lenses provided favorable optical clarity levels. Mechanical testing showed that the nanodiamond-drug compound made the contacts stronger, more durable and more comfortable to wear than traditional lenses.
“This discovery represents the pipeline of innovation that is coming from Dr. Ho’s team,” said Dr. No-Hee Park, dean of the School of Dentistry. “Dr. Ho is a visionary in his field, and his advances continue to generate significant excitement regarding the use of nanodiamonds in biology and medicine.”
Current Glaucoma Diagnosis and Treatment
You don’t need to wait for these inventions to become available to benefit from glaucoma diagnosis and treatment. Because this disease is symptom free in its early stages, the National Eye Institute (NEI) recommends high-risk people undergo a comprehensive dilated eye exam every one to two years. With early detection and treatment, slowing disease progression and preserving vision are possible.
Travatan Z eye drops are a mainstay of open-angle glaucoma treatment. They encourage fluid flow inside your eyes, which reduces elevated pressure to a normal level to help prevent blindness. The NEI-funded Ocular Hypertension Treatment Study found that pressure-lowering eye drops can delay the onset of glaucoma in people with high eye pressure.