Research Studies Offer Hope for New Glaucoma Treatments

By Judie Holcomb-Pack

Glaucoma has been called “the sneak thief of vision,” because in the early stages there are no symptoms. It is diagnosed through eye tests that reveal high eye pressure that if untreated, can lead to blindness.

As someone who was surprised to receive a diagnosis of glaucoma three years ago, I frequently point to my own diagnosis when I encourage family and friends to get regular eye exams. Because I had been going to the same eye doctor for several years, he was able to detect a change in the pressure in my eyes and refer me to an ophthalmologist to confirm his suspicion.

I was fortunate because my ophthalmologist, Dr. James D. Branch, has been doing research into eye diseases for 39 years and is the only ophthalmologist between Charlotte and Durham conducting clinical trials. I was able to enroll in a trial for a cutting-edge treatment for glaucoma, participating for nearly two years in a research project that offers hope for a new glaucoma treatment.

Glaucoma cannot be prevented, but early detection and treatment can delay progression of the disease.
Dr. Branch said that when he first began practice, there were just a few eye drops available to treat glaucoma. Now, thanks to ongoing research and clinical trials, there over 12 drugs as well as surgery to help manage the condition.

African-Americans, Hispanics, diabetics, and those with a family history of glaucoma are at a higher risk for developing glaucoma. However, everyone over the age of 60 is at risk! Over three million Americans have glaucoma, but over half do not know it; it is the leading cause of blindness.

Dr. Branch said that glaucoma diagnoses are increasing because seniors today are becoming better educated about health issues and are more health conscious, resulting in more people being screened and receiving medical care. Clinical trials have increased the sophistication of eye drops and surgeries. Some eye surgeries are now being performed in a doctor’s office that once required hospital stays.

It is important to get regular exams with your eye doctor, who can note any changes in your eyes from year to year. Your doctor will perform a test to gauge the pressure in your eye and a field test to detect any loss of vision. A scan of your eye to measure the structure of the optical nerve may be performed, as well as a photograph of your eye to view the optical nerve which affects depth perception. All these tests are painless and covered under most insurance plans.

Dr. Branch said that new trials are beginning soon which will study the effect of new medicines and eye drops for the treatment of glaucoma. One such trial that is showing promise is the placement of a tiny insert into the eye that provides sustained release of medication for 13-18 months. This is an in-office procedure that offers a more efficient delivery system and will aid in the care of glaucoma patients who have Parkinson’s, dementia, or disabilities that make it difficult to use eye drops every day. This trial is now in phase three and should be ready for presentation to the FDA in two or three years.

“Glaucoma is a serious disease that if undiagnosed and untreated, can rob you of your independence,” said Dr. Branch.

What better time than January, National Glaucoma Month, to schedule an eye exam with your eye specialist.

For more information on clinical trials for glaucoma treatment, contact the office of Dr. James D. Branch at 336-723-0748.


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