A new treatment for glaucoma, which involves implanting a tiny piece of sponge into the eye, is being rolled out across the UK. The technique has been shown to control the debilitating eye condition without the need for surgery, which often comes with unwanted side effects.
Glaucoma is caused by the build up of trapped fluid, which creates pressure that damages the optic nerve. Inserting the small strip of sponge into the organ soaks up this excess fluid, helping to keep the condition stable.
Some 700,000 people in Britain are living with glaucoma and, while it can occur at any age, according to the NHS it is most common in those in their 70s and 80s. There’s currently no procedure available to restore sight in those suffering from the condition, but doctors offer a range of treatments, including surgery, to prevent it getting worse.
Primary open angle glaucoma is the most common form of the condition, with symptoms including the progressive loss of peripheral vision. Most of those diagnosed with this type of glaucoma start off by being prescribed drops to treat it.
The next approach has traditionally been laser surgery, which widens the channels in the eye that drain fluid. This has been found to have only modest benefits, however, and even those that initially respond well to it often find the improvements wane over time.
At this point, more invasive surgery would be recommended to further open the drainage channels and create an artificial reservoir to remove the excess fluid. Recovery time of over a month and side effects, such as dry or gritty feeling eyes, were among the downsides of such surgery.
Instead, glaucoma patients are now being offered an alternative treatment option known as a MINIject. This five millimetre-long strip of high density sponge is less than a millimetre thick and absorbs fluid into a natural chamber called the supraciliary space. From there it can be easily absorbed by the body.
Chrys Dimitriou, a consultant eye surgeon at the Colchester Eye Centre, was the first doctor to implant the MINIject into NHS patients. He inserted the sponge into the eyes of eight people suffering from glaucoma and has seen positive effects.
He told MailOnline: “It's working with the natural structure of the eye. With some patients they can even go swimming a week after having it implanted.”
Data collected during trials of the treatment suggest the MINIject has a long-lasting effect on glaucoma patients. It showed eye pressure being a third lower, on average, two years after the sponge was inserted, compared to individuals without it.
Mr Dimitriou said the technology could represent hope for developing a solution to retain vision for longer in the future. The MINIject has been designed by a Belgian company with a background in minimally invasive glaucoma surgery.