Avastin eyes new indication for retinopathy of prematurity

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Roche Holding AG’s cancer drug Avastin has been shown in a new study published in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine to hold great promise for treating retinopathy of prematurity, a devastating condition among some premature babies. When administered via injection into the eyes of preemies with evidence of this vision-theatening condition, the drug was found to prevent recurrence of retinopathy more effectively than the current standard laser surgery treatment.

Premature babies are often put on high concentrations of oxygen after birth because the immaturity of their lungs results in poor oxygenation, which can cause complications, including death. But giving the babies extra oxygen sometimes leads to retinopathy of prematurity. Traditional laser therapy employed to treat the ailment can destroy peripheral vision, however, and requires special equipment, sedation and a breathing tube.

In the new study, researchers randomly assigned 150 infants with advanced damage in the zones of the retina closest to the optic nerve to receive either a single injection of Avastin in each eye or to undergo laser treatment. Of those who got an Avastin injection, only 6 percent of infants had a recurrence of retinopathy compared to 42 percent in the laser therapy group.

“Since retinopathy of prematurity is a much feared problem, a more effective treatment like Avastin is welcome news,” says ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross. “Especially if it allows peripheral vision to remain intact.”