- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 2, 2002

BOSTON (AP) To doctors' amazement, experimental medicines are rescuing people from the brink of blindness so they can read and drive and sometimes even regain perfect vision.
These lucky few are the first beneficiaries of a new category of drugs that many hope will revolutionize the care of common eye diseases.
Several competing medicines are in development, all based on similar principles. They are designed to stop the two top causes of adult blindness the "wet" form of macular degeneration, which affects the elderly, and diabetic retinopathy, the biggest source of blindness in working-age people.
Vision loss seems halted for most if they take the drugs soon after their symptoms begin. Some experience stunning reversals of what would have been inevitable blindness.
"I'm telling you, it's miraculous," said Eileen Russell.
Miss Russell, 76, of Worcester, lost vision in her right eye four years ago. In May, her left eye went bad, too, and she was declared legally blind.
But after four injections of one of the drugs, her left eye is 20-25. She drives and reads and is thinking about returning to work as a nurse. "Yesterday, I had to write a check," she said. "It looked beautiful, right on the line, with a regular pen. I can do all the little things again."
Throughout the country, about 70 patients with wet macular degeneration have been treated with Genentech's rhuFab, the same drug used by Miss Russell. About half were treated by Dr. Jeffrey Heier of Ophthalmic Consultants of Boston, who said, "I can honestly say I have never seen anything as exciting as this."
Experts caution that most of the results from the studies on this and similar drugs will not be known for at least a year or two.
None of the drugs are intended for the more common but less aggressive "dry" kind of macular degeneration, nor will they work after eyesight has been gone for months.
Guessing about the drugs' ultimate effectiveness based on early testing is risky. Still, doctors estimate that one-quarter to one-third of people with newly diagnosed wet macular degeneration have had significant improvement in their eyesight. In most of the rest, loss of sight is stopped, at least temporarily.
Among others helped by rhuFab is Ernest Hayeck, a retired judge in Worcester, 40 miles west of Boston. One day in September, he discovered he was quickly going blind in his right eye. Doorways looked wavy, and everything was dim.
Doctors said they could do nothing for him. With wet macular degeneration, vision in that eye would cloud to little or nothing within a few months at best.
Mr. Hayeck was an active retiree, nine years off the state Superior Court but busy on the faculty of the National Judicial College and the board of Wendy's International.
"I was resigned to it," he remembered. "I told myself I had had 77 good years."
But when told of Dr. Heier's rhuFab study, he seized the chance, even though it meant getting shots in his bad eye. In October, Mr. Hayeck got his first injection, which he said was painless. By then his sight had failed to 20-100.
"My eyesight came back with a vengeance," said Mr. Hayeck. "By the time I had the fourth treatment, I was 20-20 with my glasses on."
Another of Dr. Heier's patients, Edward Nowak, 81, an outdoor writer and photographer in suburban Needham, found vision in his left eye improved from 20-400 in November to 20-50 now.
"The results have been miraculous," he said. "You would think the good Lord himself did this."


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