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First patients receive eye stem cell transplants in attempt to restore sight

28 May 2012

By Ana Pallesen

Appeared in BioNews 658

Two patients with corneal blindness have become the first people in the UK to have stem cells transplanted into their eyes in order to restore their sight.

Patients have scarred and damaged parts of their corneas removed from their eyes before the stem cell transplant takes place. The stem cells are grown from deceased donors' eye tissue for around two weeks prior to the three-hour operation.

Doctors are 'very impressed' with the results so far, according to The Scotsman. It is hoped the procedure will not only be used to restore sight in people with debilitating eye diseases, but also to treat those born blind.

Mrs Sylvia Paton was the first patient to receive this treatment 12 weeks ago. She has aniridia, a condition where the eye's iris is incompletely formed, meaning she has only 10 percent of the vision of a sighted person and is extremely short-sighted.

She told the Independent: 'Even if only a little of my vision is restored, it would be better than nothing. Plus, it means that the team has gained valuable experience'.

Dr Ashish Agrawal, a consultant ophthalmologist at NHS Lothian who carried out this transplant, reported that Paton was recovering well, and that they would know if the trial had been a success within nine months.

'However, this is the first and the major step in the complex visual rehabilitation process and she will require further surgical treatment to restore vision', he told the Independent.

Corneal diseases are thought to be the second biggest cause of blindness, after cataracts, with 20 million people being affected worldwide.

'This pioneering new treatment could potentially restore sight and improve the lives of many patients, and it is vital that we continue to invest in innovative projects such as this one', commented Scottish Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon.

The trial, which has recruited a total of 20 patients, including the two who have already had the operation, is costing £500,000 and has been funded by the UK Stem Cell Foundation and Scottish Enterprise, with the stem cells being grown by the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service.

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