Wet AMD (Age-related Macular Degeneration) involves abnormal growth of blood vessels, which leak fluid into the retina. The introduction of new treatments has led to significantly improved results for patients, for a disease that was regarded as untreatable more than 20 years ago. However, patient outcomes could be even better if treatment was started in the very earliest stages of the disease.

DARC (Detection of Apoptosing Retinal Cells) is a test that involves injecting into the bloodstream (via the arm) a fluorescent dye that attaches to retinal cells. The dye illuminates those that are undergoing stress or that are in the process of apoptosis, a form of programmed cell death. The damaged cells appear bright white when viewed in eye examinations — the more damaged cells detected, the higher the DARC count.

One challenge with evaluating eye diseases is that specialists often disagree when viewing the same scans, so researchers have incorporated an artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm into their method.

Using the DARC test, the researchers at University College in London had previously found that they could detect the earliest signs of glaucoma progression. This new study assessed 19 participants who had already shown signs of AMD, but not necessarily in both eyes. The AI was programmed to detect the formation of leaking and new blood vessels, which corresponded with the spots that DARC picked up.

The new analysis found that DARC can uniquely highlight endothelial cells (which line our blood vessels) under stress in the retina. These stressed cells then predict future wet AMD activity by tracking the formation of leaking and new blood vessels seen in patients three years later, using conventional eye scans with Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT).

The researchers say their test could be valuable in detecting new lesions in someone affected by AMD, often in the opposite, unaffected eye, and may eventually be useful for screening people over a certain age or with known risk factors.

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