A gene therapy technique has been used by Surgeons in Oxford to improve the vision of six patients, who would have gone blind if they hadn’t had it.
The operation involves inserting a gene into the eye cells which is a treatment which revived light-detecting cells. The doctors involved in the surgery believe that the treatment could be used to treat common forms of blindness in time.
Leader of the research, Professor Robert MacLaren said he was “absolutely delighted” at the outcome. “We really couldn’t have asked for a better result,” he said.
The BBC reported on the start of the trail two years ago when the first patient, Jonathan Wyatt, was 63. Mr Wyatt’s genetic condition, choroidermia which means the light-detecting cells at the back of the eye are gradually dying.
When Mr Wyatt had the operation he was only just able to see and hoped that the procedure would stop further deterioration and save what little sight he had left. After the operation he found that not only was his vision stabilised it had also improved. He is now able to read three lines further down in an optician’s sight chart.
Other subjects who were at earlier stages in their vision, experienced improvements in their ability to see at night.
“I felt that I had come to the edge of an abyss,” said Mr Wyatt. “I looked down at total blackness. Professor MacLaren tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘come this way, it’s possible to see again’.”
Wayne Thomson, another patient said: “My colour vision improved. Trees and flowers seemed much more vivid and I was able to see stars for the first time since I was 17 when my vision began to deteriorate. I’ve lived the last 25 years with the certainty that I am going to go blind and now (after the operation) there is the possibility that I will hang on to my sight.”
If these improvements continue to be seen in patients the offer of treatment will be made available to younger choroideremia patients to prevent them from losing their sight.
Professor MacLaren believes that success with choroideremia demonstrates the principle that gene therapy could be used to cure other forms of genetic blindness including age-related macular degeneration.
“The mechanisms of choroideremia and what we are trying to do with the treatment would broadly be applicable to more common causes of blindness,” he explained.”Choroideremia shows some similarities with macular degeneration in that we are targeting the same cells. We don’t yet know which genes to target for macular degeneration but we do know now how to do it and how to put the genes back in.”
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