05/02/2016 04:12 GMT | Updated 05/02/2016 04:59 GMT

Cholesterol Drug Could Restore Vision In Patients With Age-Related Macular Degeneration, Study Suggests

A drug commonly used to lower cholesterol could help restore vision in patients suffering from age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

The health condition currently affects more than 600,000 people in the UK and is the leading cause of vision loss.

A small clinical trial of people with AMD found high-dose treatment with the statin Lipitor cleared away fatty deposits behind the retina. This led to visual improvement in almost half of patients.

Researchers believe the drug has the potential to halt progression of the disease.

sight loss

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is a painless eye condition that causes patients to lose central vision, usually in both eyes.

Sufferers will find it increasingly difficult to read and people's faces will become difficult to recognise. Colours will also appear less vibrant, according to the NHS.

There are two types of AMD - dry AMD and wet AMD.

Dry AMD develops when the cells of the macula (an oval-shaped pigmented area near the centre of the retina) become damaged by a build-up of deposits called drusen.

It is the most common and least serious type of AMD, accounting for around nine out of 10 cases.

Wet AMD develops when abnormal blood vessels form underneath the macula and damage its cells. This form of the condition is more serious than dry AMD and, without treatment, vision can deteriorate within days.

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Researchers recruited 23 patients with dry AMD marked by soft lipid deposits, who were prescribed a 80mg daily dose of atorvastatin, which is marketed under the brand name Lipitor.

Out of the 23 patients, 10 of them ended up with reduced deposits under their retinas and a mild improvement in vision.

Lead researcher Professor Joan Miller, chair of ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School, said: "We found that intensive doses of statins carry the potential for clearing up the lipid debris that can lead to vision impairment in a subset of patients with macular degeneration."

Co-author Dr Demetrios Vavvas, from Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in the US, added: "Not all cases of dry AMD are exactly the same, and our findings suggest that if statins are going to help, they will be most effective when prescribed at high dosages in patients with an accumulation of soft lipid material.

"These data suggest that it may be possible to eventually have a treatment that not only arrests the disease but also reverses its damage and improves the visual acuity in some patients."

Professor Miller added: "We hope that this promising preliminary clinical trial will be the foundation for an effective treatment for millions of patients afflicted with AMD."

Researchers now hope to extend the trial with more patients.

The study was published in the journal EBioMedicine.

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