St. Louis woman among first to try treatment for diabetic eye disease

This is an archived article and the information in the article may be outdated. Please look at the time stamp on the story to see when it was last updated.

ST. LOUIS (KPLR) - About 13 percent of all people with diabetes will develop diabetic macular edema. It's a disease affecting the macula, the part of the retina responsible for central vision. Blood vessels in the retina begin to leak fluid and affect vision.

Dr. Nancy Holekamp, director of Retina Diseases and the Center for Macular Degeneration at Pepose Vision Institute, says it's the leading cause of moderate vision loss in people under 65 who have diabetes. She adds that means not being able to read clearly or drive unrestricted.

Joy Ward, an author and consultant from south St. Louis, is among the 13 percent. She was diagnosed with diabetes in 1997. Joy eventually developed cataracts and had them removed. Within a couple of years, she noticed her vision was blurring and she had trouble with light. She was diagnosed with diabetic macular edema.

Joy received some laser treatments and then began getting almost monthly shots of medication in her eyes to try to stop the leakage. She says doctors numb the eye and the shots really aren't that bad, but having to go to the doctor so frequently interfered with her work and travel schedule.

Last fall, the FDA approved Alimera Sciences' ILUVIEN, the first long-term treatment for diabetic macular edema. Doctors inject a tiny pellet in the patient's eye, which then releases a steroid over a three-year period to treat the edema.

There are possible side effects. Because ILUVIEN is a steroid, Dr. Holekamp says it can cause glaucoma or worsening of cataract. So the best patients are those who have already undergone cataract surgery and have shown no adverse reactions to prior steroid treatments.

Joy was a perfect patient.

Dr. Holekamp was the first doctor in Missouri to give an ILUVIEN injection. Joy received her first injection with ILUVIEN in her right eye in March. A checkup just five weeks later showed impressive improvement in her condition. Dr. Holekamp called it remarkable. Joy was thrilled. A patient who had received 17 shots in her right eye over the past three years would now just receive one every three years going forward.

Dr. Holekamp hopes to inject Joy's left eye with ILUVIEN in about three months. Meanwhile, Joy's trips to the doctor will gradually become less frequent, something she looks forward to.

Joy says dealing with eye disease has meant having to slow down at times with her writing schedule, but she adds, "It's better than being blind."