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New FDA-approved drug can slow vision loss for those with age-related eye disease

The Food and Drug Administration recently approved the first drug to treat geographic atrophy, a form of macular degeneration, which affects a person's central vision.

Syfovre will be available as an injection and can slow the progression of the disease, although it will not reverse it. The drug is expected to be on the market in early March. An injection will be needed every one to two months and a vial will cost $2,190, according to Apellis Pharmaceuticals. 

Dr. Eleonora Lad, an associate professor of ophthalmology at Duke University Medical Center who helped oversee a clinical study of Syfovre, said the new treatment represents a "game changer" and the "beginning of a new treatment era for patients with geographic atrophy." 

While geographic atrophy particularly affects people over the age of 50, it is one of the leading causes of vision loss and impacts 1 million people in the United States.

One of those people is Bob Normandin, who started having trouble reading seven years ago. Tests revealed he had geographic atrophy in both eyes. 

"The doctor basically said, 'There's nothing we can do. You're gonna go blind eventually,'" he told CBS News. "I've had to give up tennis, I've had to give up bowling. ... It's killed my retirement plans."

Normandin joined Syfovre's clinical trial to test the drug on his right eye and said his right eye has been stabilized to the point where he can "get down pretty far" on an eye chart. He said his left eye still needs to be treated or it "will go blind." 

An ophthalmologist or optometrist can perform a comprehensive eye exam and diagnose a wide array of visual problems, including problems with the retina, such as macular degeneration. An optician can help fit eyeglasses, contact lenses and other devices to correct eyesight but does not diagnose or treat eye disease.

Adults with no risk factors for eye disease should get a comprehensive, baseline eye evaluation at the age of 40, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO). Between 40 and 54, they should see an ophthalmologist every two to four years, then every one to three years between the ages of 55 and 64. By 65, an ophthalmologist should perform an exam every year or two "as the incidence of unrecognized ocular disease increases with age," AAO says.

The American Optometric Association (AOA) has slightly different screening recommendations than the AAO. For asymptomatic/low-risk patients, it suggests an eye exam at least every two years between ages 18 and 64, and annually at age 65 and older. 

There are two forms of macular degeneration, a wet form and a dry form. The wet form causes abnormal blood vessels to grow under the retina, causing scarring on the macula. It impacts 15% of people and an available treatment option has been on the market for many years. 

The dry form is more common and causes the macula to get thinner and tiny protein clumps called drusen to grow. Until the FDA approved Syfovre, no treatment existed. 

Eye doctors and macular degeneration experts like Dr. Steven Schwartz of the UCLA Stein Eye Institute are excited for the future. 

Schwartz said the FDA's approval is "very positive" for patients with unmet needs who are desperate to preserve what vision they have left. 

It's "particularly important while we continue to rapidly develop stem cell therapies that hold the promise for restoring vision already lost to this horrifying all too common cause of central blindness," Schwartz said.

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