UNC team identifies Dx to spot worsening macular degeneration

Age-related macular degeneration is bad enough. But many patients face a "dry" variety of the condition, which doctors can diagnose with a basic dilated eye exam.

That leaves about 20% of patients facing even worse odds when their condition worsens to a "wet" variation of macular degeneration, where patients' increasing retinal damage can advance from impaired vision to outright blindness. Researchers at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine believe they've developed a concept for a new blood test that can help these patients by searching for a form of stem cell that leads to the "wet" condition, and then predict when the degeneration will advance. Their research, which involved 23 patients, is detailed in the journal PLoS ONE.

The idea here is that developing a way to correctly diagnose patients whose condition changed from "dry" to "wet" age related macular degeneration will help researchers come up with new treatments to prevent the worsening condition in the first place. And preventing a debilitating and expensive medical condition could also be lucrative in a healthcare market where prevention and healthcare maintenance is becoming increasingly important.

What scientists say they want to correctly diagnose is when blood vessels begin to grow under the retina's surface and start to leak blood and fluid. For their test, they used technology known as a Cell Search system, to conduct an automated rare cell analysis to identify endothelial progenitor stem cells; they produce endothelium found on blood vessels' inner lining. These cells, the researchers argue, can be important criteria to identify patients with age-related macular degeneration, because the cells are rare, and patients with wet macular degeneration have been shown previously to have much more of these cells than patients with dry macular degeneration.

The key here, is that the previous research involved something known as fluorescence activated cell sorting (FACS), and while the findings were noteworthy, the researchers assert that the measurements were far more variable. But the University of North Carolina team found automated rare cell analysis was more reliable and worked consistently better during their trial, which compared both methods.

Of course more research is needed to validate the team's proof of concept findings. And the team promises it will plow ahead, with a prospective study involving a large patient pool part of their plans.

- read the release
- here's the research

Special Report: VisionCare Ophthalmic - Top 10 medical device VC deals, H1 2011