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. Instead, researchers have succeeded in getting the so-called ganglion cells in the eye to react to light when a freshly injected gene causes the cells to start making a protein that is particularly sensitive to light.
After seven months of light stimulation using special glasses, the man could begin to sense objects, such as a phone or cup, but 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.