January was National Glaucoma Awareness Month and provided us an opportunity to spread the word and honor the millions of patients around the world who are impacted by this debilitating disease.
Glaucoma refers to a group of eye diseases that can cause vision loss or blindness due to damage of the optic nerve. It is one of the leading causes of irreversible blindness in the United States. High intraocular pressure (IOP) is a common risk factor for glaucoma, which over time causes stress on the optic nerve and can lead to gradual vision loss. While there currently is no available cure, the condition can be treated and stabilized with early detection and treatment.
More than three million Americans are living with glaucoma today — with estimates projecting that this number will rise to 6.3 million by 2050 — and the condition costs the U.S. economy $2.86 billion annually in direct costs and productivity losses. In nearly all cases, visual impairment from glaucoma is irreversible and it’s usually not until a significant amount of vision is lost that a patient realizes something is wrong. In fact, about 50% of people with glaucoma in the United States don’t even know they have the disease according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
I learned this lesson first-hand when I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of glaucoma at a very young age. Over the years, my doctors and I struggled to find a treatment that would stabilize the condition, and eventually my left eye would become permanently blind and disfigured. But I was lucky. Before the condition could get worse, my doctors were able to prescribe me a new medication that had just been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) a year prior to reduce IOP in patients with my condition. The treatment worked, and since then I’ve been able to live a normal life.
This one medicine is just one example of numerous efforts by biopharmaceutical companies to improve the lives of patients who are battling eye diseases. Excitingly, as of January 2023, there are 18 medicines in development to treat glaucoma that are either in clinical trials or under review by the FDA — part of the over 80 medicines in development for common eye conditions, including age-related macular degeneration, cataracts, diabetic macular edema and diabetic retinopathy. For patients like me, knowing this provides hope that one day treatment options will improve and individuals in similar situations won’t have to go through the same hardships as I did.
Undoubtedly, if it was not for biopharmaceutical innovation, I would be blind. That’s why it's so concerning that a misguided price setting policy was signed into law last year as part of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). Price setting has the unintended consequence of devaluing medical innovation, forcing companies to make tough decisions on what diseases to invest in R&D. It is scary to think companies may have to prioritize one disease area over another because of a law.
Biopharmaceutical companies already operate with tremendous uncertainty and the process of developing new medicines is fraught with more setbacks than successes. On average, it takes 10 to 15 years to bring a new medicine to market and only one out of every 10 potential new medicines entering phase one clinical trials are eventually approved by the FDA. The IRA only does more to exacerbate this uncertainty by severely upending incentives for R&D investment, which some economists project could result in 135 fewer new treatments over the next two decades.
In honor of National Glaucoma Awareness Month, we must recognize that while better screening, detection and preventative measures are needed to help those at-risk before it’s too late, we also need more treatment options for those patients with complex cases. Bringing new treatment options to patients is dependent on a policy and regulatory environment that encourages innovation. We will continue to educate the public and policymakers on the negative impact government price setting policies have on R&D and the broader health care system. And we will never stop fighting for the kinds of solutions patients and our health care system need.
If you believe you are at-risk for glaucoma, take action and see an eye doctor for your annual eye exam.
Topics: Medicines in Development, Patients, R&D Focus