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Macular Degeneration (MD) is the leading cause of blindness in Australia with 1 in 7 people over the age of 50 being affected by it. In hard numbers this means that each year there are 17,700 new cases and the frequency of the problem increases as we get older. In the US the numbers are even more startling with over 7 million people suffering from the condition. The experts talk of Dry and Wet forms of the disease with the wet form being more amenable to treatment, and the dry form - the far more common one - having no effective treatment at all.
What we do know about MD is that it's hereditary with a 50% chance of developing in those with a strong family history. We also know that smokers are at three times greater risk of developing MD and may show signs of the condition 10 years earlier than non smokers: but quitting smoking for 20 years reduces the risk to that of the normal population. We might not be able to change our genetics, but we can stop smoking or make sure our children never smoke!
On the microscopic scale, the problem is one of "neuro-inflammation" caused by activation of Microglial cells, inflammatory cells in charge of cleaning up dead and dying material in the eye. Enter Mayo Clinic ophthalmologist Raymond Iezzi, M.D and his colleagues who worked with Nano-engineers to develop a Nano-particle called a Dendimer, that has enabled them to deliver Steroids to the retina and reduce the inflammation. According to Dr Kannan, a collaborator of Dr Iezzi, "The activated Microglia in the degenerating retina appeared to eat the Dendrimer selectively, and retain them for at least a month. The drug is released from the Dendrimer in a sustained fashion inside these cells, offering targeted neuroprotection to the retina."
Predictably, all the work so far has been done on rats, and researchers are not suggesting that this is a cure but offers the prospect of good control. If, as hoped, the results are reproduced in humans, then this will be an enormously relief for everyone who hopes to live beyond the age of 50!