A new blood test is being developed to measure the risk of dry age-related macular degeneration (AMD), potentially saving millions of people from going blind.

Dry AMD is a common eye disorder that is caused by damage to the macular - the part of the eye that is responsible for our sharpest vision.

“The detection mechanisms we currently have for dry AMD happen too late,” says lead researcher Dr Riccardo Natoli from ANU.

“Once dry AMD starts there is a threshold tipping point and once a patient gets over that point there is nothing that can be done to save their sight.

“By the diagnosis stage, you look at the back of the eye and you already see that photoreceptors, the light sensing cells of the eye, are starting to die.”

Researchers used a light model, thought to be the first of its kind, to better understand how the deterioration of the retina’s photoreceptor cells in the macular.

“From our modelling we noticed an inflammatory response was happening as a consequence of the damage,” said Dr Natoli.

“We are focusing on early diagnosis and early treatment strategies that slow down the inflammatory response to see if we can slow the progression of the disease.”

The exciting research has attracted industry support from Beta Therapeutics, which has teamed up with ANU to start testing drugs to slow the inflammatory response down.

“The macular is the part of the retina that helps you see the grooves on your fingerprints. It is only 5.5 mm, so if an area equivalent to the size of a pin head starts dying - it renders you legally blind,” said Dr Natoli.

“Once that’s lost, there is no repairing it.

“By looking at these photoreceptor molecules in the macular and understanding how they function, we will be able to early predict or diagnose a patient that is having systemic inflammatory responses.

“Combined with predisposition genetic information, we hope to be able to predict people who are at high risk and start treating before the disease presentation even eventuates.”