Stem cells help cure blindness

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A stem cell treatment developed in Newcastle has restored good vision to eight people who had lost sight in one eye.

“This has transformed my life,” said one of the patients, Russell Turnbull, whose right eye was burned and scarred in an ammonia attack after intervening in a fight on a Newcastle bus 15 years ago. “I’m working, I can go jet skiing and also ride horses.”

The new technique – developed at the North East England Stem Cell Institute – involves taking a small biopsy from the cornea of the patient’s good eye and multiplying its stem cells several hundredfold in the lab with a special culture system. When the cells are transplanted back into the damaged eye, they restore the damaged cornea.

“The operation has improved the sight in my right eye from 10 per cent to 90 per cent,” said Mr Russell, 38, “and best of all it has removed the constant pain and light sensitivity in the eye.”

The technique could help thousands of people who suffer severely impaired vision through a condition known as Limbal Stem Cell Deficiency. This is caused by damage to the surface of the cornea, caused by disease, chemical burning or physical injury.

Sajjad Ahmad, the scientist who developed the Newcastle method, said its success showed the scope for using the patient’s own stem cells to treat the eye. Details are published in the journal Stem Cells.

But the technique depends at present on having one healthy eye from which to extract stem cells. And, while it might be extended to treat other disorders of the cornea, it is not suitable for retinal problems such as blindness caused by macular degeneration. Scientists elsewhere are planning clinical trials of stem cells derived from early human embryos to treat retinal disease.

The Medical Research Council has given the Newcastle team a £1.5m grant to extend the trial to 25 more patients over the next three years, said Francisco Figueiredo, consultant eye surgeon at the city’s Royal Victoria Infirmary.

“We want to take this from a research-based technique to one that could be used in eye departments throughout the NHS,” said Dr Ahmad. “It would save a lot of money as well as preventing suffering, because patients with LSCD currently have to see an eye specialist every six weeks or so.”

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