Hope research could save sight

Glaucoma NZ chairwoman Professor Helen Danesh-Meyer. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Glaucoma NZ chairwoman Professor Helen Danesh-Meyer. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Ground-breaking research into the risk factors for glaucoma within the New Zealand population could help save thousands of Kiwis from unnecessary sight loss.

Auckland University-based international expert on glaucoma and neuro-ophthalmology Professor Helen Danesh-Meyer said the research could be a game-changer for the early detection of glaucoma.

"There are some unknowns in glaucoma care, especially around risk factors for developing the condition," Prof Danesh-Meyer told The Star.

"If you have a family history of glaucoma, then you really need to pay attention as you are 10 times more likely to develop glaucoma.

"And depending on when glaucoma is detected, a person can have a very different experience of the disease."

Prof Danesh-Meyer is collaborating with Dr William Schierding to use machine learning (AI) to analyse a large database and create a risk calculator.

The calculator will study the likelihood of a person developing glaucoma based on environmental and biological profiles.

"Ultimately, we hope to be able to tell someone what their risk level is, and whether they need to be tested often or not," she said.

The study is one of many research projects, supported by Glaucoma NZ, being undertaken by New Zealand researchers.

Many people have no idea that they even have glaucoma, which is why it is commonly referred to as "the thief of sight".

Glaucoma is a group of eye diseases that damage the optic nerve.

It is estimated that 50,000 New Zealanders are unknowingly living with glaucoma, one of the leading causes of irreversible blindness. Most people experience no symptoms in the early stages and the only way to know if you have it is to have an eye test.

Prof Danesh-Meyer said the incidence of glaucoma increased with ageing, and there was a genetic component.

As it was associated with heightened pressure in the eye, having high blood pressure was also a risk factor.

Once a person was diagnosed with glaucoma, their condition could be treated with drops, lasers, micro-stents and surgery. Existing vision loss cannot be reversed.

As chairwoman of Glaucoma NZ, Prof Danesh-Meyer said the research supported by the organisation helped provide invaluable information that enabled limited resources to be directed to where they were needed most.

She would like to see the government provide free eye checks for the public. It would also be good if basic home screening tests could be developed, to make diagnosing glaucoma more accessible.

"We would also like to get the message to as many Kiwis as possible that the best way to protect your sight is to have a regular eye test, including an optic nerve check — it’s simple and painless."

brenda.harwood@thestar.co.nz

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