How Stem Cell Therapy can Restore Sight

“I once was lost, but now I’m found

 Was blind, but now I see.”

                                    ~John Newton~

The words from “Amazing Grace” have lifted the spirits of believers and non-believers alike since they were written in 1779. While the original message of the song was intended to show that forgiveness and deliverance from despair is always possible, a recent report published in the “New England Journal of Medicine” gives new meaning to this song.

Dozens of people who were literally blind have been given a dose of amazing grace in the form of having their sight restored by means of their own stem cells. The symbolism of the final words of this chorus has given way to a new, realistic meaning.

Adult Stem Cells Grow New Cornea

Cell therapy has been used for several decades to cure a variety of diseases, including blood cancers such as leukemia and sickle cell anemia. However, until this most recent study, there were no data available on how this cutting edge process would work on restoring damaged eyes. The results excited even the usually sedate physicians who practice ophthalmology.

People who were blinded or suffered severe eye damage when they were splashed with caustic chemicals had their sight restored with transplants of the own stem cells. An Italian research team took a small number of adult stem cells from the patients’ healthy eyes, multiplied them in the laboratory and placed these cells in the burned eyes. Here, they were able to grow new corneal tissue to replace that which had been damaged. Because the stem cells came from the patient’s own body, there was no need for anti-rejection drugs to be administered.

The number of patients who successfully regained their sight is nothing short of amazing. Out of 107 patients, 82 gained their sight back completely. Another 14 patients gained partial sight. The report noted that one patient, a man whose sight was severely damaged more than 60 years ago, now has near-normal vision.

Cell Therapy Won’t Fix Everything

Unfortunately, the success of this procedure was limited to those patients who had corneal damage. This stem cell therapy has not proven to be effective for repairing damage to the optical nerve or for macular degeneration, a common cause of blindness among older people that involves the retina. The research team also noted that the procedure would not work for people who are completely blind in both eyes. The reason for this is because doctors must have at least some healthy tissue that can be transplanted.

Researchers have also been trying to find a way to make this stem cell transplantation therapy work for treatment of diabetes and heart failure. However, these efforts have met with limited success.

There is also some controversy associated with stem cell research. The cell-therapy that was employed in this study used adult stem cells rather than embryonic stem cells. Adult stem cells are found throughout the body, while embryonic stem cells must be harvested from human embryos. Many physicians and laymen have expressed ethical concerns about harvesting these cells because their removal requires the destruction of the human embryos.

“Medicine is magical and magical is art”

                                            ~Paul Simon~

An Amazing Period of Medical History

These stem cell transplants offer hope to thousands of people who suffer chemical burns to their corneas. While it is true that people with eye burns can obtain an artificial cornea, this carries such complications as infection and glaucoma. Corneal transplants from cadavers are also possible for these patients but there is a possibility of organ rejections, so anti-rejection drugs are required.

In the past decade, medical technology has progressed at warp speed. The mapping of the human genome has given rise to genetically based therapies. Neurological research has begun to clarify the neuroplasticity of the brain and suggests numerous therapies for brain trauma, the effects of stroke and other neurological diseases. Now, the stem cells from a person’s own cornea can be made to reproduce thereby restoring sight. 

This is an incredible period of medical advances! Whether one believes in the power of a higher being, the inexorable progress of science and technology, or both, there is little doubt that this is indeed a time of amazing grace.