08:48am Sunday 07 June 2020

Queen’s researchers’ vision to protect premature babies from blindness

Fight for Sight has awarded the researchers £92,000 for the study which aims to find a therapy that will protect the eyes of premature babies from the damaging effects of the high oxygen levels needed by premature babies.

Recent advances in neonatal care mean survival rates of premature babies, and especially babies born before 28 weeks, have increased considerably. These babies are very vulnerable and dependent upon high oxygen for survival, yet paradoxically can suffer damage to their eyes as a result.

The name of this condition is Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP) and is a major cause of visual impairment and blindness in young children.The three year research programme is being supervised by Dr Denise McDonald and Dr Tom Gardiner at Queen’s. The leader of the project, Dr McDonald, explained that the levels of oxygen given to the premature babies can at times be detrimental to their developing eyesight.“Oxygen given at high levels is damaging to the delicate blood vessels in the eye and can lead to permanent vision loss. The aim of this research is to investigate ways to protect these vessels from the effects of high oxygen in order to preserve sight in premature babies.” The condition occurs in two stages, as Dr McDonald explained: “In phase one, exposure of premature infants to high oxygen damages the immature retinal blood vessels, resulting in the light sensitive cells in the retina becoming starved when the oxygen treatment is discontinued. During the second phase of the disease, in an attempt to rescue the tissue, there is an overgrowth of new blood vessels that break out of the retina and invade the clear gel at the back of the eye. In that situation the blood vessels may bleed and cause scarring that leads to permanent loss of vision.”“Current treatments focus on the second phase with limited success and significant side effects. The aim of our research is to find a therapy that will protect the vessels in phase one so that the second sight threatening phase of the condition is prevented.” Globally the incidence of the disease shows evidence of a resurgence due to improvements in neonatal care in low to middle income countries and the overall increased survival of very young babies. Media inquiries to Press and PR Unit. Tel: 028 90 97 5384 or email [email protected]

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