This National Diabetes Month, there is some good news for people with eye complications from diabetes. Earlier this month, a network of researchers supported by the National Eye Institute (NEI) found that the drug Lucentis (ranibizumab) can be highly effective for treating proliferative diabetic retinopathy, an eye disease that can occur as a complication of diabetes. The researchers, part of the Diabetic Retinopathy Clinical Research Network, say this is the first major advance in therapy in 40 years.
Diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of vision loss and blindness among working-age Americans. An advanced stage, called proliferative diabetic retinopathy, occurs when abnormal blood vessels grow near the retina, the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye. These new vessels can leak blood, which can obscure vision and damage the retina. Lucentis is one of several drugs called VEGF inhibitors that can block this process.
In the new study, Lucentis was compared to scatter laser therapy (or panretinal photocoagulation), which has been the standard treatment for proliferative diabetic retinopathy since the 1970s. Although laser therapy is effective in improving central vision, it can cause decreased night and side vision. The study found that Lucentis produced more improvement in central vision and little change in side vision when compared to laser therapy.
An injection into the eye might sound scary, but it’s one of the most common procedures performed by ophthalmologists. VEGF inhibitors have been used for several years to treat diabetic macular edema, a swelling of the retina that can occur as blood leaks around it. The new study suggests that VEGF drugs may even help prevent macular edema. Study participants who were treated with Lucentis were less likely to develop macular edema than those treated with laser therapy.
As better treatments for diabetic retinopathy emerge, it’s important to remember that an early diagnosis is the first step to getting treatment and saving your sight. If you have diabetes, you should get a comprehensive dilated eye exam at least once a year. Diabetic retinopathy often has no symptoms in its early stages. But an eye care professional can detect it before symptoms occur. And with early detection and appropriate treatment, the risk of severe vision loss from the disease can be reduced by 95 percent.
“Only about half of all people with diabetes get an annual comprehensive dilated eye exam, which is essential for detecting diabetic eye disease early, when it is most treatable,” said NEI Director Paul A. Sieving, M.D., Ph.D.
Keeping diabetes under control is also key to preventing vision loss. If you have diabetes, NEI’s National Eye Health Education Program recommends these important steps to keep your health on TRACK:
- Take your medications as prescribed by your doctor.
- Reach and maintain a healthy weight.
- Add physical activity to your daily routine.
- Control your ABC’s—A1C, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels.
- Kick the smoking habit.
The NEI website has more information about diabetic retinopathy, the results of the trial comparing Lucentis to laser therapy, and what a dilated eye exam can reveal. NEI’s National Eye Health Education Program has materials for health professionals about diabetic retinopathy.
NEI leads the federal government’s research on the visual system and eye diseases. NEI supports basic and clinical science programs to develop sight-saving treatments and address special needs of people with vision loss. For more information, visit https://nei.nih.gov.