Simple shot could restore vision for preemies

February 18, 2011 4:59:17 PM PST
Blindness has long been a feared complication of premature babies. Even with laser treatments, these babies often have vision so limited, they can never drive. But in an extraordinary finding, a Houston team led a national study that discovered a simple shot that can restore a preemie baby's vision.

Vivienne Gonzalez weighed only 1 pound 1 ounce when she was born extremely premature at 23 weeks. Her twin died and Vivienne was going blind. She had retinopathy of prematurity -- a common problem among preemies. Blood vessels grow in the wrong places around the eye and can lead to blindness. A national study lead by Dr. Helen Mintz-Hittner found a surprising solution -- a single shot of a cancer drug.

"Within 24 to 48 hours, the diseased, abnormal vessels are gone," said Dr. Hittner.

Avastin shrinks blood vessels in the eye, just like it does those that feed a cancer tumor. Healthy vessels grow back, restoring vision.

Dr. Hittner explained, "This is a more rapid response than we get with laser and a much better response. It's just really a miracle."

Vivienne's mother Janet Gonzalez said, "She was going to need corrective lenses as time went by. With this medicine, it was perfect."

Jenna Schustereit, 22, also has retinopathy of prematurity. Seven surgeries prevented blindness but left her with visual impairment.

"It takes me a little longer to focus, and my peripheral vision is not what most people's is, so I don't drive," she said. "Thinking back from what it could have been to what it is, it's wonderful."

But even better is saving vision with a single shot. Dr. Hittner believes the Avastin shots have fully restored Vivienne's vision.

She said, "One injection, properly timed, has made her a normal child."

The treatment is rapidly being adopted by hospitals around the country. Because it's a cancer drug, being used off-label for vision, it's cheap. Dr. Hittner says the cost of saving a baby from going blind is $40.

Dr. Hittner adds that the shot is so simple to give, nurses could do it in Third World countries, where she says they're saving more premature babies, but many of those babies are going blind.