Stem Cell Operation Attempts To Heal Corneal Blindness
May 22, 2012

Stem Cell Operation Attempts To Heal Corneal Blindness

Connie K. Ho for

Scottish specialists were recently able to transplant stem cells into the eyes of two corneal blindness patients in an attempt to restore their sight. Doctors will be able to know the effects of the procedure within a few months. It is thought to be the first treatment of its kind in the United Kingdom.

The operation, corneal epithelial stem cell transplantation, is part of a new group of regenerative therapies. Stem cells are grown from deceased donors and transplanted to the patient´s cornea. Before the transplant occurs, scarred and damaged parts of the cornea are taken out.

"If proves to be successful, we could see many more people benefit as a result,” stated Scotland´s Health Secretary Nicola in a BBC article.

The first person to receive the surgery was Sylvia Paton, a 50-year-old short-sighted female from Edinburgh.

"My vision is deteriorating as I get older, much the same as other people's. However, I already only have around 10% of the vision of sighted people. Until now there's really nothing that could be done to combat the effects of this type of blindness,” stated Paton in an article by the Independent.

Paton suffers from aniridia, which causes incomplete formation of the iris and affects both eyes. Environmental settings, space, colors, time of day, among other factors can affect her vision. On a daily basis, she has to wear dark glasses to protect her eyes. She decided to complete the three-hour operation in hopes that it could improve her quality of life and contribute to medical research.

“It has the potential to save vision, protect and give back vision to people like me,” Paton told the Independent's Christine Lavelle. "Even if only a little of my vision is restored, it would be better than nothing. Plus, it means that the team has gained valuable experience.”

Paton spoke to Scottish Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon about the procedure following the operation.

“This pioneering new treatment could potentially restore sight and improve the lives of many patients, and it is vital that we continue to invest in innovative projects such as this one,” Sturgeon told BBC News. "Sylvia is a very real example of how corneal blindness can have a dramatic impact and this trial could potentially transform her life.”

After cataracts, corneal diseases are thought to be the second leading cause of major blindness. According to the Independent, 20 million people worldwide suffer from the disease. Paton´s doctor believes that she should recover soon.

"Her cornea is clear and I hope that it will continue to maintain clarity as she goes into the future. However, this is the first and the major step in the complex visual rehabilitation process and she will require further surgical treatment to restore vision,” explained Dr. Ashish Agrawal, the ophthalmologist who performed the operation, in the Independent article. "This study will significantly enhance our understanding of these complex corneal problems and provide us a great opportunity to further help our patients."

The study was collaboratively funded by the UK Stem Cell Foundation and Scottish Enterprise as well as the Chief Scientist Office (CSO). The donor stem cells were grown by the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service (SNBTS). The trials were conducted by both the SNBTS and the National Health Service branches of Clyde, greater Glasgow, and Lothian.