AEVR Hosts World Glaucoma Week Congressional Briefing entitled Advancements in Glaucoma Treatment: The Silent Thief of Sight

Sarah Wellik, MD (Bascom Palmer Eye Institute/University of Miami)
Sarah Wellik, MD (Bascom Palmer Eye Institute/University of Miami)

On March 15, the Alliance for Eye and Vision Research (AEVR) held its annual glaucoma Congressional Briefing recognizing World Glaucoma Week 2023. Entitled Advancements in Glaucoma: The Silent Thief of Sight, the event featured clinician and researcher, Sarah Wellik, MD, who serves as a Professor of Clinical Ophthalmology and Director of Glaucoma Service at UHealth Plantation at the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. The Congressional Briefing was supported by Alliance members representing all major glaucoma societies and research organizations, including Research to Prevent Blindness (RPB), the American Glaucoma Society (AGS), the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO), the BrightFocus Foundation, the Glaucoma Research Foundation (GRF), and the Optometric Glaucoma Society (OGS).

Dr. Wellik demonstrated how glaucoma presents in patients utilizing an illustration and the National Eye Institute’s Virtual Reality mobile app: NEI-VR See What I See which allowed attendees to better understand what glaucoma patients experience when compared to normal vision. Dr. Wellik went on to characterize glaucoma, which is the leading cause of preventable vision loss in the world, as a complex disease affecting the optic nerve resulting in loss of peripheral vision that leads to progressive tunneling of a patient’s vision that can lead to blindness.

Dr. Wellik highlighted that 1 in 50 people in the US, and 1 in 10 people over age 80 have glaucoma. Additionally, she shared that certain characteristics such as age, ethnicity, and high intraocular pressure (IOP) are associated with disease development. She highlighted that groups at highest risk include African Americans who are over four times more likely to experience glaucoma and 15 times more likely to lose vision from glaucoma than white Americans. Additionally, Hispanic Americans are two times more likely to have glaucoma. Others at higher risk for glaucoma include individuals over age 60 and those with a family history of the disease.

Highlighting the value of NEI-funded research, Dr. Wellik shared that advancements in the treatment of glaucoma include pressure-reducing therapies in the form of eye drops to help eye fluid drain more effectively or lessen fluid production. In addition to therapeutic eye drop regimens, glaucoma is also treated through traditional and minimally invasive surgical techniques, including laser surgery that can help reduce fluid pressure and conventional surgery using stents to help drain fluid out of the eye,  resulting in lower interocular pressure.

Dr. Wellik highlighted that new treatment research is focused on lowering pressure inside the eye, finding medications to protect and preserve the optic nerve from the damage that causes vision loss, and the role of genetic factors. She highlighted her own research and the potential for big data and artificial intelligence (AI) to improve diagnosis and identify those at greatest risk for disease progression and blindness. Dr. Wellik also highlighted the National Eye Institute’s (NEI) five-year strategic plan which prioritizes glaucoma and optic neuropathies among other vision conditions and how factors like genetics, neuroscience, immune system, regenerative medicine, data science, quality of life, and disparities research all play significant roles with glaucoma.

Dr. Wellik concluded by encouraging attendees to recognize glaucoma as a public health concern and priority among healthcare planners and policymakers with an emphasis on early detection and treatment to prevent blindness.

In addition to speaking at the Briefing, in NAEVR-hosted visits, Dr. Wellik also visited her Florida Senators, with her Congresswoman, Representative Wasserman-Shultz (D-FL), looking to schedule an in-district meeting following her visit to Washington, D.C.

Dr. Wellik met with Jared Honts, office of Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) who indicated Senator Scott’s support for NIH and indicated that they intend to sign the support letter for NIH this year. Dr. Wellik also met with Nicole Wright, office of Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) who indicated the Senator’s support for NIH and who expressed that her own family has an extensive history of glaucoma and was supportive of the work Dr. Wellik is doing and understood the value of NEI-funded research.

About World Glaucoma Week 2023

The first World Glaucoma Day was held on March 6, 2008, and the United States House of Representatives passed H.R. 981, which recognized the event and supported the NEI’s efforts to research the causes of and treatments for glaucoma. Since 2010, the day has expanded into a week of educational events held worldwide.