Bill Egolf can see, he just can't see faces.
Suffering from an eye condition that has progressively blotted out his central vision, the 81-year old man sees fuzzy brown blurs where his grandchildren's faces once were. Doorways appear wavy and fluid. And the once-independent oilman now relies on an assistant to read business documents to him and chauffeur him to appointments.
Over the past four years, age-related macular degeneration -- the leading cause of blindness in people over 60 -- has been stealing Egolf's eyesight one black speck at a time. But thanks to a new treatment approved this month by the Food and Drug Administration, he and 200,000 other Americans with the disease don't have to face the prospect of total darkness.
The painless, two-step treatment is done in a doctor's office and takes less than 30 minutes. Using a cool laser beam that interacts with the new drug, Visudyne, doctors can seal off the leaky blood vessels in the eye that cause black specks, distorted vision and eventually blindness.
Participating in clinical trials last year, Dr. N.E. Srouji, head of ophthalmology at Integris Baptist Medical Center in Oklahoma City, performed the treatment on more than 30 patients between 70 and 90 years old. The trials, which involved 609 patients in North America and Europe, showed 61 percent of those receiving the treatment had stabilized vision.
Srouji said none of his patients had adverse reactions to the procedure. However, it had to be repeated about three times throughout the year to maintain stabilized vision for each patient.
"It's not a magic wand," said Srouji, "But it's very exciting for patients because it offers them hope that they won't lose their independence."
Age-related macular degeneration affects the eye's macula, which is responsible for centralized visual activities such as reading, driving and recognizing faces. Its causes are unknown, but the condition seems to be hereditary, Srouji said.
There are two forms of the disease: wet and dry. The dry form is characterized by yellow deposits on the retina. When it progresses to the wet form, abnormal blood vessels begin to grow and leak. The leakage causes distorted vision and a growing spiral of dark spots that block the center of the eye. About 90 percent of people with the wet form of the disease lose their sight within a few years.
While the treatment isn't designed to restore lost vision, Srouji said some people in the study reported improved eye sight.
Egolf said he is thankful the treatment has stopped his vision loss.
Without it, I'd be totally blind," he said.