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Cholesterol-lowering drug slows progression of retinopathy

diabetic retinopathy eye screening

New results from a major trial show an existing drug that’s usually used to lower cholesterol can slow eye damage in people with diabetes.

People treated with a drug fenofibrate at the first signs of eye damage were less likely to need specialist care or treatment for diabetic retinopathy compared to people who took a placebo tablet.

These results from the LENS (Lowering Events in Non-proliferative retinopathy in Scotland) trial were announced at the American Diabetes Association Scientific Sessions.

Retinopathy happens when high blood sugar levels over time cause damage to blood vessels at the back of the eye. Current treatments only work in the later stages of damage, and don’t work well for everyone. So scientists are searching for ways to intervene sooner.

The LENS trial involved 1,151 adults with type 1 diabetes or type 2 diabetes who attended annual eye screening in Scotland, and had early signs of retinopathy.

Half the volunteers took fenofibrate daily or every other day, and the other half were given a placebo. Fenofibrate is a tablet that has been used to treat people with high cholesterol for over 30 years.

The research findings

Researchers at the University of Oxford who led the trial followed the volunteers over four years. They saw people treated with fenofibrate had a 27% reduced risk of needing referral for specialist care or treatment for retinopathy, compared to those who received the placebo. 

They also found that treatment with fenofibrate was linked with a lower risk of developing macular oedema (swelling at the back of the eye). 

The benefits of fenofibrate were similar in people with type 1 diabetes or type 2 diabetes, and in people with healthy kidney function or kidney problems.

Researchers think the treatment works directly within the eye, but they need more evidence to understand exactly how it helps to slow retinopathy.

Dr David Preiss from the University of Oxford led the study. He said: 

“Diabetic retinopathy remains a leading cause of visual loss. Management of blood glucose is important but this is very difficult to achieve for many people, and there are few other treatments available.

“We need simple strategies that can be widely used to reduce the progression of diabetic eye disease. Fenofibrate may therefore provide a valuable addition to treat people with early to moderate diabetic retinopathy.”

Dr Lucy Chambers, Head of Research Communications at Diabetes UK, said:

“Eye problems are a frightening and too frequent complication of diabetes. But acting early can stop the first signs of damage progressing into devastating sight loss. 

“We’re excited by the positive results from this major trial of a new treatment to slow progression of eye damage, which has the potential to benefit many people with diabetes in the UK.”

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