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Macular degeneration in the elderly (AMD) is a major cause of blindness. Its prevalence increases to 30% in patients 75 to 85 years of age. AMD occurs in two forms: dry and wet AMD. Central geographic atrophy, the “dry” form of advanced AMD, results from atrophy to the retinal pigment epithelial layer below the retina, which causes vision loss through loss of photoreceptors (rods and cones) in the central part of the eye. While no treatment is available for this condition, vitamin supplements appear to slow the progression of dry macular degeneration and, in some patients, improve visual acuity. Neovascular or exudative AMD, the “wet” form of advanced AMD, causes vision loss due to abnormal blood vessel growth in the choriocapillaries, ultimately leading to blood and protein leakage below the macula. Bleeding, leaking, and scarring from these blood vessels eventually cause irreversible damage to the photoreceptors and rapid vision loss if left untreated.
It is only recently that new drugs have been approved for wet AMD which halt progression of the visual loss or even lead to improvement. The humanized antibody fragment ranibizumab (Lucentis) directed against vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) was developed by Genentech and Novartis has been approved in more than 70 countries worldwide since 2006 and posted record sales of US$ 1.76 bln in 2008.
The proven effectiveness and commercial success of the anti-VEGF treatment of wet AMD has encouraged many companies to develop new treatments of wet AMD based on the proven target VEGF as well as on other experimental approaches (anti-angiogenic, anti-proliferative, anti-inflammatory). More than 20 different approaches are in clinical development and more than 20 preclinical stage projecs are under evaluation for wet AMD. Among the projects are many biologics (antibodies, peptides, proteins, antisense, DNA, cells) facilitated by the topical (intravitreal administration). Small molecule approaches may confer the convenience of oral administration but efficacy still has to be demonstrated. Fewer projects are in clinical development for dry AMD, but the most prominent ones have reached advanced clinical testing, but definitive results are still lacking.