Eyeing a future without glaucoma

Glaucoma is one of the most common sight-threatening diseases in the world, affecting about 400,000 Canadians and 70 million people worldwide. A disease largely associated with aging, it can also affect children and young adults. Stelth Ng is a 27-year-old musician and filmmaker living with glaucoma. He’s also blind in one eye and knows the impact the disease can have on one’s life.

“I was born with perfect eyesight, and no one in my family had issues with their vision, but when I was 12 years old I was diagnosed with cataracts in my eyes,” Stelth remembers. “Complications from the cataract surgery caused glaucoma in one eye.”

The impact for Stelth was sudden and profound. When he was younger, there was a time when he couldn’t see his mother’s face for two years. Today, Stelth has no night vision or depth perception. He bumps into things and often falls trying to navigate stairs and curbs.

None of this has dulled his zest for life. Music became a source of inspiration and expression. “For a few months after having surgery on both eyes, I was completely blind. Playing the violin and piano lifted me out of my depression,” he says. “I want to find a way to help visually-impaired children experience music and dance.”

With 16 eye surgeries over the past 15 years, Stelth’s teen and early adult years were spent with countless trips to the hospital and visits to the doctor. As glaucoma can often cause swelling in the eye, Stelth was in constant pain, and doctors used several procedures to lower the pressure. While he has a prosthetic in one eye, he has hope that there will be a new discovery that will repair his sight.

“I am thankful for the treatment I received from doctors at the Donald K. Johnson Eye Institute. It’s very exciting to see such passionate doctors and scientists who are dedicated to finding a cure for glaucoma,” he says.

Dr Sivak
Jeremy Sivak is one of those passionate doctors. He’s a Senior Scientist and the Chair in Glaucoma Research at the Donald K. Johnson Eye Institute, Toronto Western Hospital. The Institute is at the forefront of new research that is beginning to change the thinking around treatment for glaucoma.

What has changed in our understanding of glaucoma?

Dr. Jeremy Sivak: Until recently, researchers focused on pressure in the eye, which was thought to irreversibly damage the optic nerve. We are now learning this isn’t always the case and that glaucoma is a very complex disease. We still need to better understand what is going on. But we know that glaucoma is essentially a neurodegenerative process, a disease of the optic nerve and retina. My lab and our collaborators have recently discovered that a protective molecule, called Lipoxin B4 (or LXB4), normally found in our eyes and brain, is reduced following a glaucomatous injury.

How will this knowledge help find a new treatment?

DJS: The LXB4 sends a protective signal to nerve cells and inflammatory cells, telling them that everything is okay. Our goal is to restore this molecule’s function, to prevent irreversible damage to the optic nerve. I am always reluctant to estimate a timeline, but this discovery may represent a practical approach to treating nerve damage in glaucoma.

Why is it challenging to develop a new treatment?

DJS: Getting a drug to the right place, and getting it to do what it’s supposed to do without negatively impacting other parts of the body, is not easy. Fortunately, there is a possibility that our work will benefit not only those with glaucoma, but a variety of related neurodegenerative processes, like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

What motivates you, and how important are philanthropic donors to your work?

DJS: There are no treatments at the moment to restore sight for someone who has lost it due to nerve damage from glaucoma, and that’s a frightening prospect for those facing it. Finding a cure is what motivates me, and donors are invaluable partners in our work. Toronto General & Western Hospital Foundation supports our work at the Institute, enabling us to hire experienced research staff and purchase critical pieces of equipment, including the recent acquisition of a state-of-the-art microscope, which has allowed cutting-edge analysis.

You can help find a cure for glaucoma by supporting the Donald K. Johnson Eye Institute. To learn more, please visit tgwhf.ca/dkjei or call 416-603-5220.