A Low doses of an ancient drug could slow the development of myopia, The drug is atropine (AT-troh-peen). It is a poison made by many plants in the nightshade family, such as mandrake and belladonna. These plants can be poisonous. But for thousands of years, doctors — going back to the ancient Greek and Egyptian healers — have used poisons as medicines. Drug companies today can now make atropine in the lab. This chemical has several uses as a medicine. But atropine also has uncomfortable side effects. These can include blurry vision and sensitivity to light. For that reason, it has only been used to treat severe eye problems, such as lazy eye. It has not been used for myopia, even though doctors had suspected it might help.
Preventing worsening nearsightedness could be as simple as getting special eye drops, a new study suggests.
AMERICAN ACADEMY OF OPHTHALMOLOGY
In a just completed five-year study, researchers in Singapore gave eye drops containing atropine to 400 children. The 6- to 12-year-olds all had severe myopia, meaning they already needed glasses to see across a room. The scientists compared the results of these treated children to the vision of kids in previous studies who did not receive the drug.
The scientists tested atropine at different doses. Their high doses were similar to amounts used to treat lazy eye. The very lowest doses that they used had never been tried before. And indeed, the lowest concentration, just 0.01 percent, worked best. Children who took eye drops with this concentration of atropine were the least nearsighted after five years. Compared to kids who received no atropine, the drug slowed the worsening of their myopia by around 50 percent. And at this low-treatment dose, there were very few side effects.
“We now have data showing that it is not only effective, but also safe,” says Donald Tan. He’s an ophthalmologist (Op-tha-MOL-uh-gist) at the Singapore Eye Research Institute and the National Singapore Eye Center. He led the study. Tan presented his team’s findings on November 16 at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Ophthalmology in Las Vegas, Nev.
Worldwide, myopia is increasing. Roughly 42 percent of people are myopic today. Forty years ago, only 25 percent were. The problem seems to be worse in developed Asian countries. There, as many as 90 percent of young adults may be nearsighted. Scientists believe that spending more time indoors and focusing on close objects like books and computer screens may contribute to the problem. “That’s why nerds wear glasses — it’s really true,” Tan said at a press conference.
Doctors don’t just want to treat myopia so that fewer people will need to wear glasses. A more important problem is that people with severe nearsightedness face an elevated risk of serious eye disease later in life. These ailments include detached retinas, premature cataracts and glaucoma. Such conditions can lead to blindness.
“If this drug can keep you from going as high [in myopia] as you would have gone, that’s a good thing,” says Graham Quinn. “It decreases your likelihood of problems.” Quinn is a pediatric ophthalmologist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania. He was not involved with the study.
Because the drug was tested only in Asian children, Quinn says more studies would be needed to confirm that it would work as well in other populations. But he says the scientists’ achievement was in discovering that atropine works at much lower doses than had ever been used before.
To families with children who are developing myopia, “It would seem reasonable to offer this as an option,” Quinn says. “The low dose opens it up for a reasonable conversation with people.”