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Study indicates cancer drug reduces blindness in premature babies

Approximately 50,000 people worldwide are blind because they were born prematurely before their eyes had fully developed. This condition known as "retinopathy of prematurity" (ROP) is the cause of singer Stevie Wonder's blindness. A new U.S. study shows that the cancer drug Avastin could help save the eyesight of many infants afflicted with this condition.

The current treatment for infants at risk of ROP induced blindness when born premature is laser surgery. This procedure requires specialized equipment and the sedation of the infant. It also requires the doctors to administer a breathing tube prior to the procedure. The author of the study notes that reinserting a breathing tube can be a major clinical setback for a premature infant who just had the tube removed, according to a story from Reuters News. In the study 42 percent of infants treated with laser surgery had a recurrence of ROP.

Only six percent of infants in the study that were injected with the cancer drug had a recurrence of ROP. This is described as "true breakthrough" in an editorial published along with the study. Additionally, the Avastin injection requires only the numbing of the eyes and a single injection and only takes a few seconds. The laser surgery can also destroy blood vessels which support peripheral vision, while the injections allow those blood vessels to continue developing.

The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, examined 150 infants with advanced retina damage near the optic nerve. Half were given the standard laser surgery procedure and the other 75 were given the injections of the cancer drug.

Source: Reuters "Cancer drug could prevent blindness in premature babies" February 17, 2011

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