Light saves sight for premature babies

24 September, 2013

Blindness in premature babies could be prevented by a new treatment developed at the Australian National University (ANU).

"As our sight develops, blood vessels grow at the back of our eyes to provide nutrients and oxygen to the retinas," Dr Krisztina Valter of The Vision Centre, said.

"However, in premature babies these retinal vessels are not fully developed, and when these babies are placed under oxygen therapy to support their immature lungs, the high levels of oxygen can release free radicals in the retina, causing damage in the tissue."

Once the babies are returned to normal air, they will have blood vessels growing uncontrollably in all directions in the eyes, explained Dr Valter.

These vessels bleed easily, which can result in irreversible loss of vision.

The current treatments are less than ideal, according to Dr Riccardo Natoli.

"These treatments are expensive, invasive and often have side effects, including destroying portions of the child's peripheral vision," he said.

The team have developed a promising treatment using near-infrared light (NIR).

"We found that NIR treatment can greatly decrease the risk of developing retinopathy of prematurity," Dr Natoli said.

"There were fewer vessels growing in the wrong directions, and also a significant decrease of bleeding from the newly grown vessels.

"Compared to conventional methods, NIR light therapy is cheaper and less invasive because it prevents long term damage to the retina, by halting incorrect vessel growth from occurring in the first place."

"The fantastic thing about the treatment is that as little as a few minutes of NIR every day, by encouraging the cells to use oxygen more efficiently, could help stop retinopathy of prematurity from developing," Dr Valter said.

The researchers have started a trial to treat newborns with NIR at The Canberra Hospital in collaboration with Associate Professor Alison Kent.