A drug that is much cheaper than Lucentis, which costs $2,000 for a monthly shot, has proved just as good at treating wet macular degeneration, a common eye disorder that can lead to blindness, a study shows

A much cheaper drug has proved just as good as a $2,000 monthly shot at treating a common eye disorder that can lead to blindness, a long-awaited study shows. It also indicates that patients can be treated less often, sparing them a lot of pain and expense.

The results are expected to lead many doctors and patients to turn away from the pricier Lucentis and instead use $50 shots of Avastin for an age-related condition, wet macular degeneration.

Vision improvement after one year was the same for those given Avastin or Lucentis, the 1,200-patient study found.

The results are a blow to Roche’s Genentech unit, which sells both medicines. Avastin is a cancer drug that doctors have used for many years to treat the eye disease even though it is not approved for that purpose. Genentech had been developing Lucentis specifically for the eye disease and won approval for it in 2006. A company spokesman said Thursday that it had no plans to seek approval to sell Avastin for eye use or to lower the price of Lucentis.

The results, however, are a boon for patients and insurers — mostly Medicare — because nothing prevents use of the cheaper Avastin, eye specialists said. Doctors who use it for the eye disease must get a pharmacist to prepare lower doses for injection rather than the intravenous way it’s used for cancer.

“It’s always good news for patients when there (is) more than one option for a condition. It’s good news for the country,” said Dr. Paul Sternberg, chairman of the Vanderbilt Eye Institute.

He had no role in the study, whose results were published online Thursday by The New England Journal of Medicine and will be presented at a conference Sunday.

Anyone wanting to use Lucentis now will have to justify its cost to insurers and policymakers, Dr. Philip Rosenfeld of Bascom Palmer Eye Institute at the University of Miami wrote in an editorial published with the study. He has no ties to Genentech but has consulted for several other companies developing eye treatments.

More than 250,000 Americans are treated for macular degeneration each year, mostly with Avastin, said Dr. Paul Sieving, director of the National Eye Institute, the federal agency that paid for the study. About 1.6 million Americans have advanced macular degeneration and an additional 7 million are at risk of developing it, he said.

The disease occurs when abnormal blood-vessel growth damages the part of the retina responsible for central vision. Avastin and Lucentis are injected through the white part of the eye into the central cavity.

In the study, patients were given one of four treatments for one year: Avastin or Lucentis every four weeks, or either on an as-needed basis. Those on “as needed” dosing required four to five fewer shots over a year than the others.

Genentech said proving Avastin’s benefit for the eye disease would take “substantial resources and years of clinical development.”

“We still believe that Lucentis is the most appropriate treatment,” said Genentech’s ophthalmology chief, Dr. Anthony Adamis.