New Findings about Thyroid Eye Disease

A new study conducted by researchers from the Schepens Eye Research Institute of Massachusetts Eye and Ear has discovered “new underlying mechanisms” of bulging eyes, or proptosis, in those suffering from acute thyroid eye disease. Their study was published in the journal, Ophthalmology.

What did they learn?

During the study, researchers learned that certain factors of vascular growth caused an unusual proliferation of blood vessels, and also encouraged the growth of lymphatic cells. These two factors can then lead to swelling and inflammation in the patients’ ocular regions, which could possibly cause blindness. Thyroid eye disease is connected to Graves’ disease, which is an autoimmune disorder that tricks the thyroid gland into producing an unnecessary amount of hormones.

Leo A. Kim, M.D., Ph.D., a corresponding author on the study, a retina surgeon at Massachusetts Eye and Ear, and an Assistant Professor of Ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School states, the researchers “have found that there is a proliferation of blood vessels, and…lymphatic vessels do form where there normally aren’t any.”

What does this mean?

Because of these findings, it may now be easier for scientists to develop non-invasive techniques to decompress the swelling in thyroid eye disease. About 10-20% of people with Graves’ disease experience eye swelling symptoms. Currently, to treat the symptoms and avoid double vision or permanent vision loss, doctors prescribe systemic steroids, or even more invasive procedures, such as eye realignment or breaking bones to decompress the orbits.

Dr. Kim feels hopeful that a less intense treatment can be found and says, “Our results suggest that it might be possible to treat the inflammation and swelling by stopping the blood vessels from forming and leaking fluid, or, alternatively, by finding a way to promote lymphatic vessel formation and enhance drainage of fluid. This study opens a path to exploring non-surgical treatments.”

Researchers believe a good solution can be found to treating the acute swelling phase of thyroid eye disease. A less invasive method that prevents the vessels from swelling, or calms them down once they do, would be ideal. Dr. Kim concludes with, “This exciting study gives us some new insights into how we might get to the root cause of this devastating disease and better manage it through less invasive treatments that will improve quality of care for our patients.”

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