• Glaucoma affects 400,000 Australians and is the leading cause of irreversible blindness. (Flickr)Source: Flickr
Glaucoma is the world’s most common cause of irreversible blindness. But, says one man living with the disease, there is a way to save sight: catch it early and allow genetic therapy research enough time to create better treatment options.
By
Yasmin Noone

10 Mar 2016 - 10:19 AM  UPDATED 11 Mar 2016 - 7:28 AM

Around four years ago, Alan Berry was diagnosed with glaucoma: a disease that destroys the optic nerve at the back of the eye, slowly.

At the time of diagnosis, the pressure in Berry’s eye was building and the blurs in the top right-hand corner of his left eye was growing.

He was given drops to ease the pressure with little effect: as it turns out he was intolerant to one of the chemicals in the treatment mixture.

“I looked like death warmed up to be honest,” says Berry, a 77-year-old NSW Central Coast local. “I was angry because nothing had happened that was really helping me.”

Two years passed and Berry's one blur spot had become two, spreading to the centre-left of his right eye.

He was told surgery was off the cards and irreversible blindness was a future possibility. Luckily, Berry says, his specialist changed and, he says, "within 15 minutes" into the consultation with his new doctor, an operation was ordered to take place to preserve the sight that remained.

It’s a largely invisible disease - around 50 per cent of people with glaucoma in Australia remain undiagnosed.

“I should have been operated on 18 months before I was. Had I received surgery earlier, my eyesight would be much better and my blur spots wouldn’t be as big as they are now.”

Despite his doctor's initial warnings about surgery, the operation was an enormous success: it reduced Berry’s eye pressure from over 20 to around 9, stablised his condition and stopped the disease from further damaging o his sight. “I won’t go blind not now."

Glaucoma affects 400,000 Australians and is the leading cause of irreversible blindness worldwide. However, it’s a largely invisible disease - around 50 per cent of people with glaucoma in Australia remain undiagnosed.

“I don’t think they’ll ever come up with a cure for glaucoma but they might create cheaper procedure or pills to stop it from going further,” says Berry.

He’s right. While finding a preventative cure seems like a long way off, medical researchers are investigating how to slow or stop the disease after diagnosis.

Dr Andrew White, glaucoma specialist from the Westmead Institute’s Centre for Vision Research, says the big thing in research now is the use of an experimental technique, gene therapy, to improve current glaucoma treatments and create personalised therapies.

“When most people think about gene therapy, they think about the physical alteration of genes that they have, which are replaced for another gene,” explains Dr White.

“People have been trying that for years and years in the field of glaucoma and it hasn’t worked thus far. So we’ve tried a different approach.”

Scientists recently discovered a number of genes associated with increased risk of glaucoma. “Nobody knows what they do or how they work,” says Dr White but his team are looking at the mechanisms behind the genes to investigate if they can be controlled.

“We are looking at these genes to see if can tailor specific treatments for those at risk of glaucoma.

“We might be able to achieve this by repurposing off-the-shelf drugs to create low-cost specialised glaucoma treatments.”

Dr White expects that within a decade, the research world will discover a pill, suitable for human consumption, to slow down or stop the disease from progressing. 

Dr White expects that within a decade, the research world will discover a pill, suitable for human consumption, to slow down or stop the disease from progressing. He also predicts that such a treatment would be available to buy at your local chemist within 15 years’ time.

“But nothing beats preservation so we have to encourage people to have regular eye checks to test for the early signs of glaucoma, particularly if the person is aged over 40.”

Berry also stresses that, in the absence of a magic pill that researchers are currently working hard to create, early detection is a must.

“If I didn’t get checked when I did and be operated on when I did, I may have ended up blind,” Berry says. “This disease is something that people need to be aware of.

“Glaucoma is terminal as far as your eyes are concerned. If you don’t check for glaucoma and you have it, it will progress. It could leave you blind: it’s only a matter of time. And that’s a fact.”

Related video: Following in Fred Hollows' Foodsteps (The Feed)

World Glaucoma Week will run until Saturday 12 March.

To donate to the research into glaucoma at the Westmead Institute, visit the organisation online.

Image courtesy of Flickr/ Christopher Octa

More reading
White blood cells may predict your risk of breast cancer recurrence
Women who have had early stage breast cancer may develop the disease again, within 15 years after an initial diagnosis, if their white blood cell ratio is high, international research has found.