Research seeks to prevent vision loss in infants with congenital glaucoma

July 22, 2014

Without treatment, congenital glaucoma can lead to vision loss, often before a baby ever takes his first steps.

Unraveling how this eye disease occurs is the goal of Colleen McDowell, PhD, Research Assistant Professor of Cell Biology and Immunology. A $60,000 grant from the Knights Templar Eye Foundation is funding her research on this condition that affects one in every 10,000 infants.

Unlike most types of glaucoma that develop slowly and occur late in life, congenital glaucoma is present at birth, develops quickly and is much more severe, Dr. McDowell said.

Normally fluid leaves a healthy eye through a tiny drain. The eye then makes more fluid to replace what is lost. But this balance is thrown off in an eye with glaucoma because the fluid does not drain properly.

“With congenital glaucoma, pressure in the eye gets really high, really fast,” Dr. McDowell said. “In small children this ends up killing cells in the back of the eyes that are responsible for vision.”

Her research will focus on pinpointing the cells that are dying first.

“If I can identity those that are dying the fastest, then it’s possible to target and save those cells first,” she said. “That can hopefully lead to therapies that prevent the death of the cells that are responsible for vision loss.”

The symptoms, which might not be apparent at birth, include light sensitivity and excessive tearing caused by malfunctions in the drainage system. Often the child’s eyes are unusually large because of high pressure building up, Dr. McDowell said.

If the disease is diagnosed early, structural damage can be treated with surgery and most children do well. But once vision is lost, it cannot be restored.

Dr. McDowell hopes that her research will lead to therapies that help prevent vision loss in children with the disease.

The Knights Templar Eye Foundation’s pediatric ophthalmology grants support researchers at the beginning of their careers who are committed to the prevention and cure of potentially blinding eye diseases in infants and children.

To date, it has directed more than $23 million to such research efforts.

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