Diabetic retinopathy, also known as diabetic eye disease, is a medical condition in which damage occurs to the retina due to diabetes mellitus. It is a leading cause of blindness.
Diabetic retinopathy affects up to 80 percent of those who have had diabetes for 20 years or more. At least 90% of new cases could be reduced with proper treatment and monitoring of the eyes. The longer a person has diabetes, the higher his or her chances of developing diabetic retinopathy. Each year in the United States, diabetic retinopathy accounts for 12% of all new cases of blindness. It is also the leading cause of blindness in people aged 20 to 64.
Signs and symptoms
Diabetic retinopathy often has no early warning signs. Even macular edema, which can cause rapid vision loss, may not have any warning signs for some time. In general, however, a person with macular edema is likely to have blurred vision, making it hard to do things like read or drive. In some cases, the vision will get better or worse during the day.
The first stage, called non-proliferative diabetic retinopathy (NPDR), has no symptoms. Its signs aren’t visible to the eye and patients will have 20/20 vision. The only way to detect NPDR is by fundus photography, in which microaneurysms (microscopic blood-filled bulges in the artery walls) can be seen. If there is reduced vision, fluorescein angiography can show the back of the eye and narrowing or blocked retinal blood vessels clearly. This is called retinal ischemia (lack of blood flow).
Macular edema, in which blood vessels leak their contents into the macular region, can occur at any stage of NPDR. Its symptoms are blurred vision and darkened or distorted images that are not the same in both eyes. Ten percent (10%) of diabetic patients will have vision loss related to macular edema. Optical Coherence Tomography can show areas of retinal thickening due to fluid accumulation from macular edema.
In the second stage, abnormal new blood vessels (neovascularisation) form at the back of the eye as part of proliferative diabetic retinopathy (PDR); these can burst and bleed (vitreous hemorrhage) and blur the vision, because these new blood vessels are fragile. The first time this bleeding occurs, it may not be very severe. In most cases, it will leave just a few specks of blood, or spots floating in a person’s visual field, though the spots often go away after a few hours.
These spots are often followed within a few days or weeks by a much greater leakage of blood, which blurs the vision. In extreme cases, a person may only be able to tell light from dark in that eye. It may take the blood anywhere from a few days to months or even years to clear from the inside of the eye, and in some cases the blood will not clear. These types of large hemorrhages tend to happen more than once, often during sleep.
On funduscopic exam, a doctor will see cotton wool spots, flame hemorrhages (similar lesions are also caused by the alpha-toxin of Clostridium novyi), and dot-blot hemorrhages.
All people with diabetes mellitus are at risk – those with Type I diabetes and those with Type II diabetes. The longer a person has had diabetes, the higher their risk of developing some ocular problem. Between 40 and 45 percent of Americans diagnosed with diabetes have some stage of diabetic retinopathy. After 20 years of diabetes, nearly all patients with Type I diabetes and >60% of patients with Type II diabetes have some degree of retinopathy; however, these statistics were published in 2002 using data from four years earlier, limiting the usefulness of the research. The subjects would have been diagnosed with diabetes in the late 1970s, before modern fast-acting insulin and home glucose testing.
Prior studies had also assumed a clear glycemic threshold between people at high and low risk of diabetic retinopathy.
Published rates vary between trials, the proposed explanation being differences in study methods and reporting of prevalence rather than incidence values.
During pregnancy, diabetic retinopathy may also be a problem for women with diabetes. NIH recommends that all pregnant women with diabetes have dilated eye examinations each trimester.
People with Down’s syndrome, who have extra chromosome 21 material, almost never acquire diabetic retinopathy. This protection appears to be due to the elevated levels of endostatin, an anti-angiogenic protein, derived from collagen XVIII. The collagen XVIII gene is located on chromosome 21.
A medical device comprising a mask that delivers green light through the eyelids while a person sleeps was under development in 2016. The light from the mask stops rod cells in the retina from dark adapting, which is thought to reduce their oxygen requirement, which in turn diminishes new blood vessel formation and thus prevents diabetic retinopathy. As of 2016 a large clinical trial was underway.
C-peptide had shown promising results in treatment of diabetic complications incidental to vascular degeneration. Creative Peptides, Eli Lilly, and Cebix all had drug development programs for a C-peptide product. Cebix had the only ongoing program until it completed a Phase IIb trial in December 2014 that showed no difference between C-peptide and placebo, and it terminated its program and went out of business.
Stem cell therapy
Clinical trials are under way or are being populated in preparation for study at medical centers in Brazil, Iran and the United States. Current trials involve using the patients’ own stem cells derived from bone marrow and injected into the degenerated areas in an effort to regenerate the vascular system.
Blood pressure control
A Cochrane review examined 15 randomized controlled trials do determine whether interventions that sought to control or reduce blood pressure in diabetics had any effects of diabetic retinopathy. While the results showed that interventions to control or reduce blood pressure prevented diabetic retinopathy for up to 4–5 years in diabetics, there was no evidence of any effect of these interventions on progression of diabetic retinopathy, preservation of visual acuity, adverse events, quality of life, and costs.