The first treatment to slow vision loss from the most aggressive form of macular degeneration is now available by prescription.
The Food and Drug Administration last week approved verteporfin (brand name: Visudyne) on the basis of year-long tests in patients with age-related macular degeneration (AMD) at 22 medical centers. Patients who took the drug were more likely to have stable vision after a year than those who didn't receive the drug.
The new drug is far from a cure, FDA officials cautioned. While it can slow retinal damage, it cannot stop vision loss or restore vision in eyes damaged by AMD.
AMD, the leading cause of blindness in Americans over 60, affects the center of the field of vision. By contrast, glaucoma, another common cause of blindness, affects peripheral, or side, vision.
AMD affects the macula, the part of the eye responsible for the central vision essential for reading, driving and recognizing faces. The so-called ''wet'' form of AMD, for which verteporfin is approved, is caused by leaky blood vessels that scar and damage the retina in the back of the eye. It destroys vision more rapidly than the more common ''dry'' form -- usually within two years and sometimes within a few months. An estimated 200,000 Americans are blinded each year by wet AMD.
The new treatment is a two-step process done in a doctor's office. First, the drug is injected into the patient's arm. Twenty minutes later, after the drug has reached the blood vessels of the eye, the drug is activated by shining a laser light into the patient's eye for about 90 seconds.
The new therapy costs about $2,000 per treatment, according to a spokeswoman for one of its developers, CIBA Vision, a unit of Novartis AG.
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