For the first time, blind people have partially recovered with the help of a pioneering new technology. “The results are a breakthrough in this area,” chief physician Anders Cavanta tells Dagens Medicin.
Researchers from France and Switzerland, among others, are behind the new findings, Published in Nature Medicine.
The man diagnosed with an incurable hereditary retinal disease nearly 40 years ago has partially restored his eyesight thanks to a combination of light stimulation and a new gene therapy, in which the working gene is injected into the eye. The new technology is called optogenetics.
– There has been talk for a long time about testing the concept in humans, and now they’re doing it for the first time, says Anders Kvanta, assistant professor and chief physician at St. Eric Eye Hospital in Stockholm, to Dagens Medicin.
In healthy eyes, the optic cells – pins and rods – react to light, but man has almost no such cells left.
Big step for the blind
The treatment consists of injecting a gene into cells below the light-detection layer in the eye with a little more detail. The gene causes cells to form a protein that is particularly sensitive to light, so that they can respond to certain lights.
For the man to see, he also needed to wear a specially developed pair of eyeglasses, which could detect differences in light intensity and send pulses of light onto the retina in real time. This led to the activation of so-called ganglion cells.
After seven months of photostimulation with glasses, the man can begin to sense objects, such as a phone or a cup. But he could not read or recognize faces. He also had to wear special glasses to be able to see.
The results are a big step forward for patients who are blind but not even close from a socially beneficial point of view, says Anders Kvantha.