New Stem Cell Surgery Helps The Blind To See

Monday, October 25, 2010
Peter Sands
Professor Charles McGhee
Stem cells have been used to restore vision to the blind for the first time in New Zealand.
Professor Charles McGhee and colleagues performed the operation on five subjects, using healthy stem cells harvested from the patient's good eye and growing them in the lab for up to three weeks. The cells were grown on amniotic membrane obtained from a human placenta. They were later implanting into the injured eye. Two patients received conventional corneal transplants at the same time. According to Prof. McGhee, the procedure has had "really quite dramatic" results.
One of the five patients, Aparna Unnikrishnan, has been blind in her right eye for 30 years after it was pierced by a shard of glass when she was 12 years old. She has frequently experience intense pain so intense that she begged her doctors to remove the eye.
Unnikrishnan has been effectively blind in that eye, but was able to differentiate light from dark. Over the years, she has undergone two corneal transplants, an operation to correct a squint, laser surgery, medication for the glaucoma caused by the repeated trauma, among other attempts to restore sight or reduce her pain.
During a four-hour operation, Unnikrishnan received a new cornea, grafted from a deceased donor. Due to the poor condition of her eye, the graft should have failed in a few weeks. However, Unnikrishnan also received a graft of her own lab-grown stem cells at the same time. This meant that the corneal transplant has a better chance of lasting five years or more.
Right after the operation,  Unnikrishnan  was able to distinguish large shapes with her previously blind eye. A couple weeks later, she could make out facial features. She can now read the first three lines. To Unnikrishnan, it is more important that her pain is finally gone.
Prof. McGhee splits his time between performing surgery for Auckland District Health Board and running Auckland University’s ophthalmological research program. McGhee said that there is still a long way to go before this technique is perfected. One of their goals is to grow cells for all three parts of the cornea, instead of just the surface cells. Another is to figure out how to reprogram stem cells harvested from other parts of the body and train them to function as corneal stem cells. If this is achieved, patients with two badly injured eyes may also be able to benefit.
Source:  Sunday Star Times

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