Early detection can stop glaucoma in its tracks

“I had no idea,” says Alf Kwinter.

“There was no pain. There was no dramatic vision loss. Little did I know, it was slowly, silently robbing me of my sight.”

Glaucoma affects almost half a million Canadians and is the leading cause of irreversible blindness around the world. Almost 50 per cent of those with the condition have no idea they have it.

Glaucoma is often associated with elevated pressure within the eye. This pressure can lead to damage of the optic nerve that sends signals from the eye to the brain.

There are two main types of glaucoma: open-angle and angle-closure. With open-angle glaucoma, which accounts for the majority of cases in Canada, optic nerve damage gradually and painlessly takes away a person’s peripheral vision. As the disease advances, central vision eventually worsens until, potentially, no vision remains.

Though glaucoma can affect any age, it is more prevalent over age 50 and where there is a family history of the disease. Canada’s aging population is resulting in an alarming increase in the number of people being diagnosed.

Early detection is the key

Alf, a proud father of three and grandfather of six who is celebrating his 50th wedding anniversary this year, is co-founder of SingerKwinter, one of the country’s top personal injury law firms. “I’ve always been a fighter and am proud to stand up for the ‘little guy,’” he says.

But it’s difficult to put up a fight when your opponent hasn’t made itself known.

Alf is a patient of Dr. Graham Trope, Co-Director of the Glaucoma Clinic at the Donald K. Johnson Eye Institute at Toronto Western Hospital. The Clinic is one of the largest in the country, with 10,000 patient visits annually. Alf’s glaucoma was detected during a routine eye examination.

“Early detection and treatment are essential in controlling the condition before it causes irreversible vision loss and, potentially, blindness,” says Dr. Trope. Generous donors have helped to ensure Dr. Trope and his team have access to the best technology available to enable early detection and monitor progression. “Once identified, depending on the severity, we can treat glaucoma with eye drops, laser therapy or surgery.”

Dr. Trope recommends that people schedule annual check-ups with an eye care professional, especially those with a family history of glaucoma.

“Unfortunately, at this stage, we can’t give people back the vision they’ve lost,” he says. “But we’re working on it.”

A potential cure in sight?

Dr. Jeremy Sivak, Senior Scientist and Chair in Glaucoma Research at the Donald K. Johnson Eye, is shedding light on what causes glaucoma and how to potentially reverse its damage.

Dr. Graham Trope, left, and Dr. Jeremy Sivak

In November of last year, his team announced the discovery of a molecule that appears to protect the neurons in the retina that form the optic nerve.

“We discovered this tiny molecule that is present in healthy retinas that appears to act as a neuroprotector,” says Dr. Sivak. “There were reduced levels of this molecule in diseased eyes, and we demonstrated that by restoring it, we can preserve injured cells from dysfunction and death.”

This discovery, supported by philanthropy, could one day lead to a way to restore the vision loss caused by glaucoma. It may even unlock a better understanding of other neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

A bright future

As for Alf, he takes his drops three times a day and doesn’t leave home without them. He’s thankful that his glaucoma was detected early, so his vision loss was moderate and he could continue to pursue his passions: stand-up comedy, photography and boating.

“Dr. Trope and his team are outstanding,” says Alf. “They’re always there when you need them. We’re lucky to have them.”

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