As eye doctors from around the world converge this week on New Orleans for the American Academy of Ophthalmology’s annual meeting, expect to see revelations including dry-eye cures, eye drops inspired by the tissue of sharks and the latest in high-tech surgery.

A talk was scheduled Sunday by New Orleans native and pianist extraordinaire Henry Butler, blind since birth as a result of glaucoma.

Butler has not had even the slightest perception of light since he was 3 months old due to the disease, which causes high intra-ocular pressure and damages the nerve connecting the eye to the brain. Yet “limitation” is not a word in his vocabulary.

“I decided early on while at The Louisiana School for the Blind that I was going to take advantage of the help that was offered me in order to attain my goals, and music was decidedly my way out,” Butler said last week from his home in Brooklyn.

Many cases of congenital glaucoma are now treatable surgically, but that was not the case in 1949, when Butler was born. The Academy asked him to speak so he could recount what it was like to grow up without one of the critical five senses.

Treatment for non-congenital glaucoma, which strikes later in life, has also advanced over the years, and the most recently approved FDA drug for reducing the pressure of open-angle glaucoma is being discussed at this year’s meeting.

“We’re discussing new molecules, new chemical entities, different from their predecessors, and now in clinical development,” said Gary Novack, Ph.D, President of PharmaLogic Development Inc., and Visiting Professor of Pharmacology and Ophthalmology, University of California, Davis School of Medicine. “The new drug application for Vyzulta was just approved on Nov. 2 and is indicated for the reduction of pressure in patients with open-angle glaucoma or ocular hypertension.”

Eighty-seven-year-old Martin Spindel, a former New Orleans veterinarian who presents cooking demonstrations in retirement, was struck by another common eye disease, macular degeneration, in 2011.

“I was working at Destrehan Plantation, giving a presentation, and suddenly all of the lines I was seeing, instead of going horizontally and vertically, were wavy,” Spindel said.

“That particular symptom is classically a sign of macular degeneration, in which swelling in the back of the eye (the retina) causes this distortion,” said Jasmine Elison, M.D., retinal specialist and Spindel’s physician. “It affects the central vision, not the peripheral vision, and Dr. Spindel’s treatment at the moment includes coming here once a month for eye injections.”

But the injections don’t give every patient the most optimal 20/40 vision.

That’s where a new treatment currently in clinical trials comes in: eye drops containing the same anti-infective material that's produced in the tissue of sharks, used in conjunction with the injections.

“The injections don’t work completely for everyone, so we began testing an eye drop in our Mako Study. The drops contain squalamine, a compound found in sharks.” said Jason Slakter, M.D., CEO of Ohr Pharmaceutical. 

"Sharks do not succumb to certain diseases which involve excessive blood vessel growth, the sort that occurs in macular degeneration. So, we isolated squalamine, which is delivered to patients through eye drops and absorbed in the back of the eye, preventing long-term scarring," he said. "The drops would be used in conjunction with the injections.

The squalamine is synthetic, not extracted from sharks. "No animals are harmed in the production of this treatment," Slakter said.

In a previous study, 128 patients have finished the nine-month eye-drop trial and can read a whole line below of smaller print on a specialized eye chart for clinical trials, Slakter said.

The Mako study results will be out in early 2018. If this treatment eventually becomes FDA approved, the next goal would be to study preventive agents, Slakter said.

The American Academy of Ophthalmology convention continues through Tuesday.

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OTHER EYE NEWS TO COME OUT OF THE MEETING

A study shows that certain daily nutritional supplements prevent eye diseases: They are lutein, zeaxanthin, Vitamins A, C, and E, zinc and copper

A new protein, now in clinical trials, is working to stimulate tear production and put an end to dry eyes, which affects millions of people

A new hydrogel surgical corneal inlay is correcting presbyopia (old-age farsightedness) much like LASIK has been used to correct nearsightedness

Always check with your eye care physician about new developments and treatments.