Cancer drug could prevent blindness in premature babies

Thu Feb 17, 2011 12:30am EST
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NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - The cancer drug Avastin could help prevent blindness in premature babies born before their eyes developed completely, the same condition that affected singer Stevie Wonder, according to a U.S. study.

About 50,000 people worldwide are blind, including Wonder, because of this condition, known as "retinopathy of prematurity" (ROP) for its effects on the retina.

The study, reported in The New England Journal of Medicine, showed that a single injection of Avastin into the eyes of premature babies prevented blindness more effectively than laser surgery, the usual method used when there are signs of problems.

While more research is needed, the ease of the intervention and its light physical burden on frail babies are pluses, said Helen Mintz-Hittner of the University of Texas Health Science Center, who was lead author.

The injection "takes a few seconds," she told Reuters Health.

As opposed to this process, which involves in all numbing the baby's eyes and injecting the inexpensive drug, laser surgery takes special equipment and requires both sedation and a breathing tube.

"It's a major clinical setback for a baby whose tube may have just been removed," Mintz-Hittner said.

Roche's Avastin, known generically as bevacizumab, is approved by the U.S. FDA for several cancers, including colon cancer that has spread.

In the study, 150 premature infants were randomly assigned to have their eyes treated with injections or with lasers. All had advanced retina damage in the zones of the retina nearest to the optic nerve, which carries information from the eye to the brain.   Continued...