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Has UVa Found a Cure for Macular Degeneration?

Macular degeneration may not get as much attention as Alzheimer's disease or breast cancer, but nearly one-third of people over 80 are affected by it. One physician at the UVa School of Medicine says they may have found a cure. WMRA’s Marguerite Gallorini reports.

Macular degeneration is the leading cause of vision loss, affecting two million Americans over 40, with 7 million more at risk of developing the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Jayakrishna AMBATI: Actually if you look at the number of patients with macular degeneration just in the U.S., it dwarfs all the patients with Alzheimer's and most cancers combined.

That number is projected to double over the next 15 years, says Dr. Jayakrishna Ambati, the director of the Center for Advanced Vision Science at UVA.

AMBATI: Macular degeneration typically starts affecting people in their fifties and sixties. Up to a third of patients who are in their eighties and nineties have macular degeneration, so it's clearly an age-associated condition. And that's all the more alarming given the aging of our population.

The so-called wet form of the disease, in which abnormal blood vessels break and leak fluid near the retina, can be treated. But the more common dry form, characterized by small deposits forming on the retina, still has no cure – and overtime, it results in loss of vision. But Dr. Ambati and his team have worked on dry macular degeneration for the past 15 years – and it’s starting to pay off.

AMBATI: Over the last decade, our lab has actually made some very foundational discoveries, and we have identified what we believe are the culprits that cause the cells in the retina to die in dry macular degeneration. That’s the reason why people lose their vision. So we have found that there is an accumulation of toxic substances and those build up and kill the cells. So we have identified the precise mechanisms by which these toxic molecules are killing the cells and we have also identified drugs that, in various models, can prevent this death.

Clinical trials will begin soon, and if the drugs work, they should be approved within the next three to five years.

Marguerite Gallorini was a feelance journalist for WMRA from 2015 -2018.