New eye test detects earliest signs of glaucoma

27 April 17

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Press Office

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Researchers at UCL Institute of Ophthalmology and the Western Eye Hospital have developed a new type of eye test for glaucoma.

Glaucoma is the world’s leading cause of irreversible blindness. Sight loss happens gradually over time due to the death of the retina cells. This cell death is called apoptosis. Development of a new form of eye test could allow doctors to see individual nerve cell death in the back of the eye.

Early detection means doctors can start treatments before sight loss begins. The test also has potential for early diagnosis of other degenerative neurological conditions, including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis. 

Results of first clinical trials with glaucoma patients are published in the journal BRAIN

Professor Francesca Cordeiro, a Fight for Sight Trustee, at UCL Institute of Ophthalmology, who led the research, said:

“Detecting glaucoma early is vital as symptoms are not always obvious. Although detection has been improving, most patients have lost a third of vision by the time they are diagnosed. Now, for the first time, we have been able to show individual cell death and detect the earliest signs of glaucoma. While we cannot cure the disease, our test means treatment can start before symptoms begin. In the future, the test could also be used to diagnose other neurodegenerative diseases.”

The technique developed is called DARC, which stands for detection of apoptosing retinal cells. It uses a specially developed fluorescent marker which attaches to cell proteins when injected into patients. Sick cells appear as white fluorescent spots during eye examination. 

The examination uses equipment used during routine hospital eye examinations. Researchers hope that eventually it may be possible for opticians to do the tests, enabling even earlier detection of the disease. 

Initial clinical trials were carried out on a small number of glaucoma patients and compared with tests on healthy people. The initial clinical trials established the safety of the test for patients. 

Further studies will now be carried out to into DARC and how it can be used not only to diagnose and treat glaucoma patients but also for other neurodegenerative conditions. The research is funded by Wellcome Trust.

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