Retinopathy, Diabetic

National Organization for Rare Disorders, Inc.

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It is possible that the main title of the report Retinopathy, Diabetic is not the name you expected. Please check the synonyms listing to find the alternate name(s) and disorder subdivision(s) covered by this report.


  • Insulin-Dependent Diabetes Retinopathy
  • Non-Insulin Dependent Diabetes Mellitus Retinopathy

Disorder Subdivisions

  • None

General Discussion

Diabetic Retinopathy is a complication of diabetes and a disorder of the light sensitive tissue of the eye (the retina). This condition is characterized by destructive changes in the blood vessels of the retina, which, if left unchecked, may lead to visual impairment or blindness. The severity of the damage to the retina is highly correlated with the length of time the patient has had diabetes.

For reasons that are not well understood, the blood vessels of the retina lack their normal oxygen load. Capillaries tend to close off, further depleting the oxygen supply. The diabetes process also weakens the walls of these blood vessels, which tend to become enlarged and form micro-aneurysms. Not infrequently, the small blood vessels break causing hemorrhage and contributing to the patient's clouded vision.


The tiny blood vessels of the retina undergo pathologic changes. During the earliest stages of this form of retinopathy, no changes are visible to the ophthalmologist, but as the condition progresses venous dilation and small red dots may be seen by the ophthalmologist at the back of the retina.

Untreated, this condition can lead to vision impairment or blindness. (For more information, choose "Diabetes" as your search term in the Rare Disease Database.)


The earliest changes in the retina of diabetic people involve a reduction in blood flow and velocity. Later, in more advanced stages of Diabetic Retinopathy these changes can evolve into significantly increased blood flow along with development of physical abnormalities within the small vessel network of the retina.

Affected Populations

Approximately 40% of all people with diabetes show at least mild signs of Diabetic Retinopathy. About 3% of patients with diabetes have suffered severe visual loss and blindness because of this disorder.

Standard Therapies

The goal of therapy is to maintain normal blood glucose levels. In some cases, this can help reverse changes in the small blood vessels of the eye. It is vital that people with diabetes have regular medical and ophthalmologic checkups to avoid onset of Diabetic Retinopathy. If normal glucose levels can be sustained, this complication of diabetes may be avoided.

In many cases, laser treatment can reduce the risk of vision loss from Diabetic Retinopathy. During such treatment, called photocoagulation, powerful laser light is aimed at several separate spots on the diseased retina. In most cases, this treatment can interrupt the disease process and prevent the development of additional retinal abnormalities. However, some patients may experience unwanted side effects, such as decreased central and side vision.

Investigational Therapies

The blood and scar tissue caused by intensive bleeding inside the eye can now be removed by an experimental surgical technique known as vitrectomy. In some cases, vision may improve enough for patients to move around unaided and, occasionally, to resume reading or driving. However, more research is needed to determine the long-term safety and efficacy of this procedure.

Clinical studies using a new drug, sorbinil, are underway to determine whether the drug can prevent eye and nerve damage in diabetics who do not yet show signs of retinopathy.

Clinical trials are in progress to study suppression of Growth Hormone and Insulin-like Growth Factor 1 (IGF1) with Octreotide for prevention of progression of Diabetic Retinopathy. The results of the first set of these studies will be published shortly. Novartis, the pharmaceutical company that manufactures this therapeutic agent, plans a second clinical trial under the guidance of Dr. Maria Grant. Interested persons may wish to contact:

Maria Grant, M.D.

J-226 Shands Teaching Hospital

Jay Hillis Miller Health Center

University of Florida

Gainsvile, FL 32601

(352) 392-2613

Information on current clinical trials is posted on the Internet at All studies receiving U.S. government funding, and some supported by private industry, are posted on this government web site.

For information about clinical trials being conducted at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, MD, contact the NIH Patient Recruitment Office:

Tollfree: (800) 411-1222

TTY: (866) 411-1010


For information about clinical trials sponsored by private sources, contact:



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Beers MH, Berkow R, Eds. The Merck Manual. 17th ed. Whitehouse Station, NJ: Merck Research Laboratories; 1999: 729-30.


Smith LE, et al., Regulation of vascular endothelial growth factor-dependent retinal neovascularization by insulin-like growth factor-1 receptor. Nat Med. 1999;5:1390-95.

Kylstra JA, et al., The importance of florescein angiography in planning laser treatment of diabetic macular edema. Ophthalmology. 1999;106:2068-73.

Le Mer Y, et al., TPA-assisted victrectomy for proliferative diabetic retinopathy: results of a double-masked, multicenter trial. Retina. 1999;19:378-82.

Bandello F, et al., Diabetic retinopathy: are we really doing all we can for our patients? Eur J Ophthalmol. 1999;9:155-57.

Terasaki H, et al., Florescein angiography of extreme peripheral retina and rubeosis iridis in proliferative diabetic retinopathy. Retina. 1999;19:302-08.

Bailey CC, et al., The National Diabetic Retinopathy Laser Treatment Audit. III. Clinical outcomes. Eye. 1999;13(Pt 2):151-59.



Lighthouse International

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American Foundation for the Blind

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Suite 1102

New York, NY 10121

Tel: (212)502-7600

Fax: (888)545-8331

Tel: (800)232-5463

TDD: (212)502-7662



American Diabetes Association

1701 N. Beauregard Street

Alexandria, VA 22311

Tel: (703)549-1500

Fax: (703)549-6995

Tel: (800)342-2383



NIH/National Eye Institute

31 Center Dr

MSC 2510

Bethesda, MD 20892-2510

United States

Tel: (301)496-5248

Fax: (301)402-1065



Association for Retinopathy of Prematurity and Related Diseases

39650 Orchard Hill Place

Novi, MI 48375

Tel: (248)319-0161

Fax: (248)788-4589

Tel: (800)788-2020



Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International

26 Broadway, 14th Floor

New York, NY 10004

Tel: (212)785-9595

Fax: (212)785-2873

Tel: (800)533-2873



Genetic and Rare Diseases (GARD) Information Center

PO Box 8126

Gaithersburg, MD 20898-8126

Tel: (301)251-4925

Fax: (301)251-4911

Tel: (888)205-2311

TDD: (888)205-3223


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