A new breakthrough form of gene therapy could transform the lives of millions of people who suffer from blindness, as a man who has been totally blind for 40 years got his vision partially restored in a landmark procedure.
A new therapy called optogenetics uses proteins that control cells at the back of the eye. The procedure involves genetically altering retinal ganglion cells to make them light-sensitive, the BBC reported.
“This is the first-ever patient that is reporting any kind of improvement through optogenetics,” lead researcher Dr. Jose-Alain Sahel, chairman of ophthalmology at the University of Pittsburgh, said in an interview.
Before the procedure, a 58-year-old man, who suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, had been without vision for roughly 40 years, from around the age of 18.
Retinitis pigmentosa is a genetic disorder that breaks down cells that absorb and convert light into brain signals. Although complete blindness is rare with the disease, it impairs the vision of millions.
Following the gene therapy, using special goggles, he was able to make out the stripes of a street crosswalk, as well as smaller items such as a large notebook, glass tumblers, and even a small box of staples. He was able to count objects on a table, MedicalXpress reported.
Because of the severity of impairment the man began with, researchers do not expect him to recover enough to be able to recognize faces, saying such an ability requires a very high resolution. However, the amount of vision he has received thus far will be incredibly helpful to the daily life of any blind person.
“These are people who are completely blind. There’s nothing. They don’t see anything,” Dr. Richard Rosen, chief of retinal services for the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City, said. “If they could detect large obstacles in their way, that’s huge. Right now, they use a stick to tap around to see what’s in their way. It’s a small step, but it’s also a huge step for these patients.”
The results of the study will appear in the June issue of the journal Nature Medicine. Retinitis pigmentosa affects over 2 million people worldwide and this new technology could potentially help restore partial eyesight too many. Researchers caution that the technique needs refinement, but they add that the proof of the concept is an exciting breakthrough.