Stem Cell Transplants Reverse Blindness Due To Chemical Burns


Here is another spectacular success story in the field of the rapidly flourishing cell therapy. A group of Italian researchers recently claimed that the eye sight of numerous people who had either lost their vision or suffered critical eye damages owing to acerbic chemicals coming in contact with their eyes were restored by means of transplants done with their own stem cells. Giving further details, these scientists said that while the stem cell therapy was completely successful in as many as 82 of 107 damaged eyes, it was partially effective in 14 other cases. Moreover, the benefits of the stem cell treatment in the above mentioned cases remained effective for around 10 years thus far. In fact, a man who had sustained severe eye damages over 60 years back has been treated by the stem cell therapy and now has an almost normal eye sight!

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Dr Ivan Schwab, an ophthalmologist at the University of California in Davis, who was not a part of the longest ever study of its kind undertaken by the Italian scientists described the achievement as a 'roaring success' in the field of stem cell therapy.

It may be noted that every year, stem cell transplants provide optimism to numerous people who endure chemical burns on their corneas due to potent cleansing agents or any other substance at home or at their workplace across the globe. Nevertheless, this mode of treatment is not useful for ophthalmic conditions, such as macular degeneration or any injury to the optic nerve, since these conditions concern the retina. In addition, stem cell therapy will also not be useful for people who have lost complete vision in both their eyes, as in any case the doctors require some healthy tissues that can be transplanted.

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The findings of the study published on the website of the New England Journal of Medicine says that the scientists grafted a few stem cells from the healthy eyes of the patients, increased their number in the laboratory and subsequently positioned them into the eye damaged by chemicals. Once planted in the damaged eyes, the stem cells were successful in growing fresh corneal tissue and replaced the damaged ones restoring eye sight completely or partially as the case may be. It is important to note that since the stem cells were taken from the patients' own body, they were not required to take any anti-rejection medications.

For several decades now, adult stem cells have been effectively used to treat blood cancers, including leukemia, as well as maladies, such as sickle cell anemia (a persistent and frequently fatal disease inherited form of anemia and characterized by sickle or crescent-shaped red blood cells, taking place almost solely in Blacks). However, this method of treatment was never tried to cure damaged eyes and restore vision. Presently, different groups of scientists across the globe are studying the effectiveness of cell transplantation therapy to treat a number of other medical conditions, such as heart failure and diabetes. However, till date, their efforts have only been successful to a certain extent.

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It may be mentioned here that the adult stem cells that are present all over the body are basically dissimilar to the embryonic stem cells that are present in human embryos. In fact, treatment with embryonic stem cells has not only stirred a raging controversy, but is also being considered unprincipled since the embryonic stem cells can be removed only after destroying an embryo.

Meanwhile, people suffering from eye burns caused by chemical substances can now avail an artificial cornea. However, this process of getting artificial cornea involves too many problems and may even result in eye infection and glaucoma (an eye disorder characterized by unusually high fluid pressure). Alternately, such people may also get a transplant making use of cells obtained from a corpse, but, in this case, they would need to take additional medications to put off any rejection of the transplanted cells by the body. In such a scenario, the use of stem cell therapy to treat eyes damaged by chemicals and restoration of vision is undoubtedly a tremendous success.

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According to the online report published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the study conducted by the Italian scientists covered 106 patients enduring eye problems owing to acid splash. The scientists treated all these patients with the stem cell therapy over a period of approximately a decade between 1998 and 2007. One eye of majority of these patients was severely damaged by chemicals, while some others had only partial vision only capable of counting fingers, sensing light or making out movements of the hand. Again, several of these patients, who lost their vision long back, had even undergone eye operations to get back their vision. However, all the surgeries had proved to be futile for these patients.

While undertaking stem cell treatment of the eyes damaged by chemicals, the scientists took all the cells from the patients' own limbus (a typical border between the cornea and sclera of the eyeball). The limbus actually is a transparent pane that covers the tinted portion of the eye. In the regular eye, the limbus functions like a manufacturing unit, producing new cells that replace the dead cells of the cornea. In case of an eye injury, the stem cells are destroyed causing the tissues to form a scar on the cornea. These scars cause hazy vision and, in some cases, they ultimately result in blindness.

During the course of their research, the Italian doctors got rid of the scarred tissues covering the cornea and pasted stem cells developed in the laboratory over the damaged eye. In patients whose both eyes were damaged due of chemical splashes, the scientists took cells from those portions of the limbus that were still healthy. While the development of the patients' eyes was usually tracked for around three years, in some cases, the scientists pursued with their treatment for as many as ten years. It was found that approximately 75 per cent of the patients enduring eye damages and vision loss regained their eye sight following the stem cell therapy. Approximately 13 per cent of the total patients who were involved in the study regained partial vision. While the eye sight of these 13 per cent patients improved significantly after the treatment, they still had some problems, such as haziness in the cornea.

Patients who only had minor eye damage were able to regain their complete vision around one to two months following the stem cell treatment. However, it took much longer, precisely speaking, several months, to restore the eye sight of patients who were suffering from severe eye damage. According to Graziella Pellegrini, a scientist at the Center for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Modena in Italy, who was also a study leader, while all the patients were extremely happy having regained their eye sight, some of them even described the success of the stem cell therapy in curing their conditions as a 'miracle'. However, Pellegrini herself does not agree that it was a 'miracle', but attributes the success of their study to their modus operandi in handling the problem.

Meanwhile, scientists in the United States are in the process of experimenting with a separate technique regarding the usage of stem cells provided by the patients to treat their eye damages caused by chemicals. However, this research is still in its initial stage. According to statistics available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, eyes of as many as 2,850 people were affected by chemical burns at their work place in the United States during 2008 alone.

According to Dr. Ivan Schwab of University of California in Davis, it was not possible to treat the patients who suffered burns in both eyes and lost their vision completely since the ophthalmologists required healthy stem cells from the limbus to cure them through the stem cell therapy. He further said that he did not want to offer hollow promises to such patients regarding restoring their vision as doing such will not fulfill their desires.

The details of the study conducted by the Italian scientists published online by the New England Journal of Medicine describe a particular case that highlights the tremendous success achieved by these researchers. The report states that one of the patients involved in the study had been enduring acute damages in both eyes owing to a burn caused by chemicals way back in 1948. In his case, the scientists took stem cells from a tiny portion of his left eye, multiplied them in the laboratory and transplanted them in both the eyes after removing the scarred tissues over the cornea. Today, after the treatment, the patient is able to see things absolutely normally.

A cornea expert at the Jules Stein Eye Institute at the University of California in Los Angles (UCLA), Dr. Sophie Deng is of the view that the greatest advantage was that the Italian scientists were successful in multiplying the stem cells grafted from the patients' limbus in their laboratory. The technique adopted by the Italian researchers was not only less insidious compared to the method of grafting big tissue sections from the eye, but also helpful in diminishing the risks of injury to the eye. According to Dr. Deng, the most important thing is whether one can locate a healthy and good number of stem cells in the eye and multiply them artificially in the laboratory.


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