An area of the body that is drastically affected by premature birth is the eye. For this reason, experts continue to research a disease known as retinopathy of prematurity, which mostly affects babies born prior to 32 weeks of gestation and weighing less than 3.3 pounds, according to Zietchick Research Institute. Efforts continue to be made to protect these infants’ gift of sight long term.
Retinopathy of prematurity is a disease that occurs when retina blood vessels develop abnormally. This disease can take many forms. The milder form involves blood vessel development that is delayed. Meanwhile, the more serious form is characterized by hypervascularizion of the retina. This can lead to the retina becoming fully detached, as well as other major visual impairments that can result in blindness. Other complications associated with this disease’s advanced stages include cross-eye, lazy eyes, cataracts, eye misalignment, and nearsightedness.
Research shows that retinopathy of prematurity affects between 14,000 and 16,000 babies born each year in the United States to some degree. Unfortunately, babies affected by retinopathy of prematurity are at risk of suffering severe damage to their eyes, if they are not carefully monitored and treated (if necessary). Because babies’ eyes are not completely developed until they have reached 38 to 42 weeks of gestation, how old they are when they are born will determine how likely they are to develop long term vision complications associated with premature birth.
At the moment, laser therapy is the standard treatment for this disease. For the most severe cases, anti-VEGF injections into the vitreous fluid of the eye have largely supplanted laser therapy.
However, no eye treatment exists that specifically prevents the disease. Zietchick Research Institute is researching new retinopathy of prematurity therapy options. For instance, the institute is striving to create the very first treatment involving replacing placental hormones that have been lost but are needed to stimulate eye maturation in premature newborns. The institute has received federal grants as well as grants from Michigan to conduct such visionary research.