Blood test could give new hope for irreversible eyesight loss

Canberra woman Jan James has spent the past 20 years helping the blind and sight impaired.

So it came as a shock when she was diagnosed with dry macular degeneration and found herself the one in need of help.

Jan James began losing her vision a couple of years ago. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Jan James began losing her vision a couple of years ago. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

"My doctors said to me 'I'm afraid there's no cure and nothing I can really do to help you'," Ms James said.

The Retina Australia committee member was told her eyesight would probably deteriorate more over the next few years, putting her at risk of going blind.

But a new blood test being developed at the Australian National University has given Ms James and millions more like her hope of saving her sight.

Lead researcher Dr Riccardo Natoli, from The John Curtin School of Medical Research and ANU Medical School, said the blood test could detect patients at risk of the disease and pick it up earlier.

“The detection mechanisms we currently have for [the disease] happen too late,” said Dr Natoli.

“Once [the disease] starts there is a threshold tipping point and once a patient gets over that point there is nothing that can be done to save their sight.

“By the diagnosis stage, you look at the back of the eye and you already see that photoreceptors, the light sensing cells of the eye, are starting to die.”

Researchers used a light model, thought to be the first of its kind, to better understand the deterioration of the retina’s photoreceptor cells in the macular.

The macular is a part of the retina that helps you focus and see the grooves on your fingerprints.

It is only 5.5 mm so if an area equivalent to the size of a pin head starts dying it renders you legally blind.

“Once that’s lost, there is no repairing it," Dr Natoli said.

“We are focusing on early diagnosis and early treatment strategies that slow down the inflammatory response to see if we can slow the progression of the disease.

“Combined with predisposition genetic information, we hope to be able to predict people who are at high risk and start treating before the disease presentation even eventuates.”

Through a partnership with the Translational Fellowship Program and Beta Therapeutics the university has started testing drugs to slow the inflammatory response down.

Dr Natoli said the research could be even more important with an ageing population and increased exposure to blue screens through computers and mobile phones.

"We have no idea what this increase in exposure is going to do to people in old age," Dr Natoli said.

Ms James can still drive during the day but is starting to struggle with computer work and finds it difficult to identify numbers.

She doesn't drive at night and worries about her future mobility when her eyesight deteriorates more.

But the prospect of clinical trials - which could begin next year - has given Ms James hope her eyesight could be saved.

"It could be absolutely huge for so many people," Ms James said.