Southwest Florida eye specialists offer new injection for rare sight affliction

Special to the Daily News/Jason Easterly 
 Dr. Alexander M. Eaton, director of Retina Health Center, prepares Diane Keene of Naples for a dose of Jetrea, a new nonsurgical treatment option for patients with symptomatic vitreomacular adhesion, VMA, at Retina Health Center in Fort Myers on Tuesday morning. Jetrea is an enzyme that breaks down the proteins in the eye responsible for VMA, a progressive and debilitating eye disease. The treatment has just recently been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Photo by JASON EASTERLY // Buy this photo

Special to the Daily News/Jason Easterly Dr. Alexander M. Eaton, director of Retina Health Center, prepares Diane Keene of Naples for a dose of Jetrea, a new nonsurgical treatment option for patients with symptomatic vitreomacular adhesion, VMA, at Retina Health Center in Fort Myers on Tuesday morning. Jetrea is an enzyme that breaks down the proteins in the eye responsible for VMA, a progressive and debilitating eye disease. The treatment has just recently been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

— Diane Keene is hoping the odds work in her favor and her vision gets better.

The Naples winter resident recently became the first person in Southwest Florida to undergo a drug injection as a new nonsurgical treatment for a debilitating eye condition called symptomatic vitreomacular adhesion, or VMA. The condition can lead to visual distortion and potentially blindness.

The 73-year-old was told it could take a week for the drug to be effective. She had the prescribed single-dose injection in her left eye.

"If it works out, I will have it in my right eye," she said the day after treatment at Retina Health Center in Fort Myers.

Until now, surgery has been the only option for treating the eye condition that can progressively worsen. About 250,000 people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with it yearly.

"The other solution, and not a good solution, was surgery," Keene said.

Immediately after the injection, Keene said she wasn't able to see much out of her left eye, but was told by the doctor that was expected.

She first learned of Jetrea, the injected drug, when she was diagnosed last summer with the eye condition in Michigan. She wears glasses and was noticing something was going wrong with her vision.

"It was kind of a blurriness. There's a blockage, like with a headline I could see a piece of it," she said.

Her doctor in Michigan told her the drug would be available for commercial use this month but she knew she would be in Naples for the winter. She got a referral to Retina Health.

She was apprehensive about getting an injection in her eye, but it was fully anesthetized and she said you don't see a needle coming at you.

"It is scary to think about," she said. "I felt nothing."

Dr. Alexander Eaton, an ophthalmologist with Retina Health who did her injection, said the drug is promising. Retina Health has locations in Collier and Lee counties.

"It's definitely a significant game-changer," Eaton said. "It's an entirely new class of drugs."

The eye condition occurs when the jelly in the center of the eye starts to move away from the macula and can lead to pulling or tugging on the macula. The macula is the center of the retina that is responsible for reading vision. The condition tends to afflict people over age 55, Eaton said.

The drug is an enzyme that is injected in the eye to break down proteins that are responsible for causing the condition, Eaton said. The drug relieves the pressure to fibers in the eye that causes the pulling on the macula.

Developed by the Belgian company ThromboGenics, the drug proved effective among 26 percent of patients treated with a single dose, he said.

"Of those who responded, six months later 41 percent got two lines of improvement on the eye chart," Eaton said.

The eye condition also can lead to what's called "macular hole," where a small hole develops in the macula.

Eaton said during clinical studies for Jetrea, 40 percent of people with macula hole saw their vision improve six months after the injection. Overall, the drug was successful with 58 percent of clinical study participants with macular hole.

"For macular hole patients, this is a godsend," Eaton said.

Eaton said the arrival of the first drug for these conditions has been long in the making, probably 10 years.

There's great interest and hope it can be used some day with diabetics as a way to reduce diabetic-related vision complications, Eaton said.

"It's always nice when you have something entirely new," Eaton said.

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