It's a devastating cancer that leads children into a world of darkness. When kids survive retinoblastoma -- a cancer that develops in the retina – 97 percent live with a moderate to severe visual impairment. A new effort is focused on finding treatments that can save these kids and their eyesight.
Angela Van Beveren saw it in her daughter's eye when she was only a few weeks old -- a strange glow in her left eye.
"It just seemed like something was not right,” Angela told Ivanhoe.
It was retinoblastoma, tumors inside her daughter Leah's eye. Within a year, doctors had to remove her eye to stop the cancer.
"At which point, I completely lost it, thinking of my little girl with no eye,” Angela said.
Today, Leah is a happy six-year-old, with a prosthesis she calls her "hero eye."
Researchers are working on new treatments to kill the cancer before a child's eye has to be removed. The first -- suicide gene therapy. Doctors inject viral particles into the eye then follow it up with a powerful IV drug. The combination launches an all-out attack on tumor cells.
"The product is poisonous to the cell, and the cell eventually dies because of that,” Murali Chintagumpala, M.D., a pediatric oncologist at the Retinoblastoma Center of Houston, told Ivanhoe.
The second new therapy -- proton beam radiation, a more precise treatment that targets only the tumor.
"We will be able to spare the normal tissues around the eye from the effects of radiation therapy, thereby reducing long-term side effects including future cancers,” Dr. Chintagumpala said.
Leah's now celebrating five years cancer-free, a little girl who had to sacrifice a lot, but is now enjoying every moment of growing up.
For kids whose cancer is stopped in the eye, the cure rate is 95 percent. It's unclear exactly what causes retinoblastoma, though 30 to 40 percent of cases are hereditary. In kids with retinoblastoma, it's common for a camera flash to produce the appearance of a white pupil in photos. The American Academy of Ophthalmology says if this is the case, take your child to an eye doctor immediately.