A groundbreaking genetic study seeks to transform the prevention and treatment of glaucoma while reversing historical racial disparities in who suffers from the disease and benefits from such research.
With open-angle glaucoma, the form affecting roughly 90 percent of glaucoma patients, everything seems fine until it isn’t; once vision loss occurs, it can’t be reversed.
There is no cure. Its cause is unclear. And though efforts to understand such vision losses date back as far as Hippocrates, much about glaucoma remains a mystery to both the patients living with it and the doctors and scientists who are working to treat it.
It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that the invention of a small handheld device made of half-silvered mirrors and glass plates revolutionized the study of the human eye. The ophthalmoscope enabled early physicians to examine previously obscure parts of the eye and detect dysfunction in central and peripheral vision. In 1862, a Dutch ophthalmologist using the ophthalmoscope identified a connection between high intraocular pressure and blindness, making it possible to diagnose the onset of the condition now known as open-angle glaucoma.
More than a century and a half later, while the ophthalmoscope has seen many functional upgrades, the treatment of glaucoma has remained remarkably similar over time, with the main treatment options focused on lowering the pressure in the eye. But, today, a major study is also using modern genetic science to advance understanding of the disease — and upending a longstanding disparity in who benefits from such research at the same time.
Glaucoma is the leading cause of irreversible blindness in the world today. As studies show, African Americans are four to five times more likely to have glaucoma than Caucasians. Glaucoma also tends to appear earlier and progress faster in African Americans. Open-angle glaucoma can occur when drainage canals in the eye become clogged over time, leading to increased eye pressure. Because the disease progresses slowly over time, over half of the individuals living with the disease are unaware that they have it.
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