Clinical Services

Laser therapy & surgery for ROP (Retinopathy Of Prematurity)

Retinopathy of prematurity (ROP) is a disease that affects immature vasculature in the eyes of premature babies. It can be mild with no visual defects, or it may become aggressive with new blood vessel formation (neovascularization) and progress to retinal detachment and blindness. As smaller and younger babies are surviving, the incidence of ROP has increased.

During the 1940s and 1950s, ROP, also known as retrolental fibroplasia, was the leading cause of blindness in children in the United States. In 1942, Terry first reported the disease that was published in a report on the histologic findings of end-stage cicatricial disease.1 In 1951, Campbell first suggested that ROP was related to the introduction of oxygen therapy into the newborn nursery, and this was confirmed by Patz.2 Today, after oxygen therapy has been studied and found not to be the single causative agent, the factors that play a role in the pathogenesis of ROP are still unknown.

The retinal vasculature begins in the 16th week of gestation. Retinal vessels grow out of the optic disc as a wave of mesenchymal spindle cells. As these mesenchymal spindle cells lead the shunt, endothelial proliferation and capillary formation follow. These new capillaries will form the mature retinal vessels. The choroidal vessels (that are vascularized by the 6th week of gestation) supply the rest of the avascularized retina. The nasal portion of the retina is completely vascularized to the ora serrata by the 32nd week of gestation. The larger temporal area usually is completed at 40-42 weeks (term).

Two theories exist on the pathogenesis of ROP. The mesenchymal spindle cells, exposed to hyperoxic extrauterine conditions, develop gap junctions. These gap junctions interfere with the normal vascular formation, triggering a neovascular response, as reported by Kretzer and Hittner.3 Ashton theorizes that 2 phases exist.4 The first phase, a hyperoxic phase, causes retinal vasoconstriction and irreversible capillary endothelial cell destruction. As the area becomes ischemic, angiogenic factors, such as vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), is made by the mesenchymal spindle cells and ischemic retina to provide new vascular channels. These new vascular channels are not mature and do not respond to proper regulation.

The most conspicuous question in the pathophysiology of ROP is why it progresses in some premature infants despite rigorous and timely intervention, while, in other infants with similar clinical characteristics, it regresses. Csak et al believe that perhaps the genetic differences between infants could be an explanation.5 Although many causative factors, like low birth weight, low gestational age, and supplemental oxygen therapy, are associated with ROP, several indirect lines of evidence suggest the role of a genetic component in the pathogenesis of ROP. The incidence of ROP is more frequent in white infants than in black infants and in male infants than in female infants. Genetic polymorphism may alter the function of the genes that normally control retinal vascularization, such as VEGF, which may also be involved in the pathogenesis of ROP.

In the future, evaluation of candidate genetic polymorphism influencing the outcome of ROP may provide new information about the pathogenesis of the disease. Screening of genetic polymorphisms may also help to identify and treat those infants who are at high risk in a more timely manner.