Mediaplanet: What are some tips to maintain healthy eyes and vision?

Ben Shaberman: Doctors often say that what is good for your heart is also good for your eyes. Don’t smoke. Eat a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables. Also, protect your eyes from bright sunlight by wearing sunglasses or a wide-brimmed hat. In addition to getting regular eye exams, contact your eye doctor immediately if you have any sudden changes in vision. The earlier you get help, the better chance your vision can be saved or restored.

Mediaplanet: What are the major eye conditions that people get and are they inherited?

Ben Shaberman: The major retinal diseases include age-related macular degeneration (AMD), diabetic retinopathy, and a wide variety of inherited conditions such as retinitis pigmentosa and stargardt disease (juvenile macular degeneration.)

There are genetic risk factors for AMD, but unhealthy lifestyle habits such as smoking can greatly increase a person’s risk. Diabetic retinopathy is a consequence of diabetes types 1 and 2. In some cases there may be genetic risk factors. A person with diabetes can reduce their risk of vision problems by controlling their blood sugar levels.

MP: What types of innovations and advancements for vision therapies and technologies do you see making waves for the future?

BS: Gene therapy is perhaps the most elegant approach to saving vision, because a single treatment will last several years, perhaps a lifetime. When used at an early stage of disease, it might serve as an all-out cure. Also, administration of gene therapy is relatively simple — it only involves the injection of a tiny drop of liquid underneath or near the retina. Since 2007, it has performed exceptionally well in human studies.

Stem cells hold great potential because they can be used to replace any type of retinal cell lost to disease or injury. Someday, researchers may even use them to grow an entirely new retina for restoring vision.

Bionic retinas are also an exciting, emerging technology. While they restore rudimentary vision today, in the next five to ten years, they will provide better more, detailed vision. They are like cameras — the more pixels, the higher the resolution.

MP: Genetic testing is now available for inherited retinal degenerative diseases. What are the potential benefits for knowing the underlying genetic cause for RDD?

BS: More than 200 genes have been linked to retinal diseases, so determining which gene is causing a person’s condition is essential to getting a definitive diagnosis and understanding which of their family members may be affected or at risk of the disease. Identifying a person’s disease-causing gene is often necessary for participation in clinical trials and determining which future therapies might work for them.

MP: What type of groundbreaking research is being done and how can these advancements help restore vision?

BS: Scientists are developing a variety of innovative therapeutic approaches for saving and restoring vision. For example, gene therapy involves replacement of defective genes with healthy copies to halt and even reverse vision loss. Stem cell treatments hold promise for replacing retinal cells lost to disease thereby restoring vision. Even bionic retinas are becoming available to restore vision in people blind from advanced retinal conditions.

MP: What is gene therapy and how could it help someone with vision impairments?

BS: Genes are like instruction manuals for all the cells in our bodies including those of the retina. If there is a misspelling or mistake in a gene that affects the retina, disease and vision loss can occur. Gene therapy involves replacement of these defective genes to save and restore vision. In one clinical trial, gene therapy is providing vision to children who were born virtually blind from a retinal disease called Leber congenital amaurosis.