Doctor puts Viera on the map with chance to test promising new treatments on patients suffering from vision loss
While away from the office, Dr. Vrinda Hershberger is supposed to be enjoying downtime to decompress from her busy workweek, but her patients often pop up on her mental viewscreen. The glinting waters off the Indian River Lagoon. A new green shoot that has pressed its way through the garden soil toward that same glinting sun. Or something as simple as light reflecting from the pages that allow her to see and read the words on the page.
Hershberger is in a race to preserve these sights for her patients.
A board-certified ophthalmologist with Florida Eye Associates, Hershberger’s expertise at clinical studies is a key reason why the Florida Eye Associates office at 5510 Murrell Road in Viera was one of only 120 sites in the United States chosen to conduct free two-year-long tests on patients with dry macular degeneration and wet macular degeneration. The chronic eye diseases cause severe loss of central vision.
“This is extensive testing, extensive treatment and the patients will not have a single dollar out of pocket,” she said.
Dr. Hershberger finds it difficult to describe the excitement she feels about promising new treatments for patients who suffer
from vision-robbing age-related macular degeneration.
“Every patient I’ve spoken to who’s on my list of candidates keeps calling and asking, ‘Are you ready to go yet?’ ” said Hershberger, who specializes in treatment of retinal diseases and cataract surgery.
“I mean, it’s really amazing.”
The Viera/Suntree area, with its large population of seniors who are at greatest risk of contracting macular degeneration, is perfect for the study, Hershberger said.
Test subjects with dry macular degeneration will receive injections of a drug called lampalizumab, which was developed by Genentech/Roche and has been shown during Phase 2 trials to decrease the disease’s progression, Hershberger said. Currently, there is no treatment on the market for dry macular degeneration other than vitamin supplements to slow the disease’s progression, she said.
Those with wet macular degeneration – a condition in which abnormal blood vessels leak fluid into the macula in the center of the retina of about 20 percent of people with dry macular degeneration, often causing a quick and drastic drop in vision – will be treated with a drug called Fovista, developed by pharmaceutical company Opthotech. They will also receive either Bevacizumab or Eylea, which are currently the standard drugs for wet macular degeneration.
Florida Eye Associates has been recruiting potential candidates for the wet macular degeneration clinical trials since August, Hershberger said, and could be ready to enroll patients in the dry macular degeneration studies any day now. Hershberger already has a log of patients who might qualify, and Florida Eye Associates is reaching out to other eye care professionals in Brevard who have patients with the disease.
“In the case of dry macular degeneration, we can offer patients something that doesn’t even exist for maybe the next five years until it hits the market,” she said. “In terms of wet macular degeneration, we can offer patients almost a level of magnitude higher efficacy than the current best drug on the market.”
Treatment is free for candidates who qualify for the studies, Hershberger said, adding she believes the companies who developed the drugs will pay for patients’ transportation costs as well.
Potential test subjects with serious diseases such as cancer are still eligible to participate in the two-year-long studies unless they lack the physical ability to undergo the tests or are in hospice case, Hershberger said.
The process is nothing new to Hershberger, a Satellite Beach resident who helped conduct 11 Phase 3 clinical trials at her previous location in Orlando before coming to the Viera office two and a half years ago. Some of the trials she participated in were for drugs currently available to people with wet macular degeneration.
“I’m very familiar with having done this before,” she said. “And Florida Eye Associates has done a fantastic job getting all of our site personnel up to speed and trained to do all the testing and everything needed to recruit all these patients. Once we get the patients in through the door we should be ready to go pretty fast.”
Balancing the high-stakes profession is important to Hershberger, who finds Brevard the perfect place to enjoy the activities she preserves for her patients, pastimes that benefit from good eyesight. She and her family love being out on the water, an activity easily pursued on the Space Coast, she said.
“We joined a local boat club and thoroughly enjoy boating,” she said. “My husband’s trying to take up fishing. We enjoy travel and reading. I have a 14 ½-year-old, so in between her school and her sports and both our jobs we are pretty busy. We also enjoy gardening, but not in the summer.”
And while she preserves the eyesight of her patients, Hershberger will do the same for patients all over the world as she puts Viera on the map with regard to eye research.
Hershberger was drawn to research before she went into medicine. After receiving her Ph.D. in pharmaceutical research, she worked for Proctor & Gamble for five years before earning her medical degree at the University of Cincinnati. Hershberger, her husband and daughter moved to Florida in 2004, then to Brevard in 2011.
“Pretty much as soon as I started my practice, because of my background in research and my interest in being able to offer my patients a lot more than is available on the market, I started to put out some feelers to companies who I knew were interested in doing research and finding better drugs,” she said. “It’s been a great partnership.”