It’s an eye disease that forces people into a dark, blurry world. Every day, people with keratoconus watch their vision slip away. Until now, a cornea transplant was the only option, but a few tiny drops may save their sight.
“I literally can see nothing unless it’s six to eight inches away from my face,” Marsha Watts told Ivanhoe.
Where others see details, Watts, a schoolteacher sees only a blur. Every year, keratoconus takes away a little more of her sight.
“Os look like Cs,” she described. “Cs look like Gs. I can’t see things at a distance. Night vision is very bad so I don’t drive at night.”
A normal cornea is round, but in keratoconus the cornea stretches into a cone shape, blurring vision. A clinical trial is testing a new treatment called CXL. Drops of riboflavin, or vitamin B2, are applied to the cornea in phases. An ultraviolet light activates the drops.
“There’s a reaction between the ultraviolet light and the riboflavin, which joins or links the collagen molecules in the cornea and in doing so, makes it stiffer,” Doyle Stulting, M.D., Ph.D., an ophthalmologist at Emory Eye Center in Atlanta, Ga., told Ivanhoe.
That stiffness prevents the cornea from stretching, keeping its round shape. CXL is approved in Europe. Dr. Stulting was the first to perform the procedure in the United States.
“It’s not very often in your career where you have an opportunity to treat a disease that had no treatment available,” he said.
It can take months for vision to improve, but Watts saw results quickly.
“I had tears in my eyes,” she recalled. “I was so excited that at one week, already I was seeing improvement.”
She hopes that’s a sign of things to come.
CXL is also being tested on a similar eye condition called ecstasia, which happens when people with weak corneas get Lasik surgery to correct their vision. International trials show CXL slows the progression of both conditions, which cause 15 percent of cornea transplants. Ten sites across the nation are recruiting participants for clinical trials of the new treatment.