The Future of Medicine: Curing Blindness

curing_blindnessAccording to a recent study in Nature Biotechnology, a significant leap has been made towards the curing of blindness. Using stem cells, researchers at the Moorfields Eye Hospital and University College London claim that the part of the eye which actually detects light can be repaired. An animal study revealed that it could be done, and human trials are now a realistic prospect.

Experts described it as a “significant breakthrough” and “huge leap” forward, and for good reason. In the past, stem cell research has shown that the photoreceptors in the eye that degrade over time can be kept healthy and alive longer. But this latest trial shows that the light-sensing cells themselves can be replaced, raising the prospect of reversing blindness.

The Moorfields research team used a new technique for building retinas in the laboratory, collecting thousands of stem cells, which were primed to transform into photoreceptors, and injecting them into the eyes of blind mice. The study showed that these cells could hook up with the existing architecture of the eye and begin to function.

rods_and_cones_of_the_retina-splHowever, with ongoing trials, the results remain limited. Of the 200,000 or so stem cells injected into the eyes of the blind mice, only about 1,000 cells actually hooked up with the rest of the eye. Still, the margin for success and the fact that they were able to rehabilitate receptors thought to be dead was quite the accomplishment.

As lead researcher Prof. Robin Ali told the BBC News website:

This is a real proof of concept that photoreceptors can be transplanted from an embryonic stem cells source and it give us a route map to now do this in humans. That’s why we’re so excited, five years is a now a realistic aim for starting a clinical trial.

The eye remains one of the most advanced fields of stem cell research, with clinical trials aiming to correct macular degeneration, astigmatism, and other degenerative and inherited traits. And compared to other fields, like neurological disorders and impairments, it is a relatively simple one. Hence, much less cells would also be needed to make a difference, as opposed to other organs, like a failing liver or kidney.

photoreceptorsWhereas reversing something like dementia requires stem cells to hook up and repair far more cells across the brain, light sensing cells are easier to deal with, since they only have to pass their electrical message to one or more cells. What’s more, the immune system is relatively weak in the eye, which means the chances for stem cell rejection.

 As Chris Mason, a Professor from the University College London, told the BBC:

I think they have made a major step forward here, but the efficiency is still too low for clinical uses. At the moment the numbers of tiny and it will take quite a bit of work to get the numbers up and then the next question is ‘Can you do it in man?’ But I think it is a significant breakthrough which may lead to cell therapies and will give a much expanded knowledge on how to cure blindness.

In short, the results are encouraging and human trials could begin within five years. And given the likelihood for success, blindness could very become a thing of the past within a decade or so.


The Future is Here: Bionic Eye Approved by FDA!

Argus-IIAfter more than 20 years in the making, the Argus II bionic eye was finally approved this past February by the Food and Drug Administration for commercial sale in the US. For people suffering from the rare genetic condition known as retinitis pigmentosa – an inherited, degenerative eye disease that causes severe vision impairment and often blindness – this is certainly good news indeed.

Developed by Second Sight, the Argus II is what is known as a “Retinal Prosthesis System” (RPS) that corrects the main effect of retinitis pigmentosa, which is the diminished ability to distinguish light from dark. While it doesn’t actually restore vision to people who suffer from this condition, it can improve their perceptions of light and dark, and thus identify the movement or location of objects.

argusII_1The Argus II works by using a series of electrodes implanted onto the retina that are wirelessly connected to a video camera mounted on the eyeglasses. The eye-electrodes use electrical impulses transmitted from the camera to stimulate the part of the retina that allows for image perception. By circumventing the parts of the eye effected by the disease, the bionic device is a prosthetic in every sense of the word.

According to Suber S. Huang, director of the University Hospital Eye Institute’s Center for Retina and Macular Disease, the breakthrough treatment is:

 [R]emarkable. The system offers a profound benefit for people who are blind from RP and who currently have no therapy available to them. Argus II allows patients to reclaim their independence and improve their lives.

ArgusIIArgus II boasts 20-plus years of research, three clinical trials, and more than $200 million in private and public investment behind it. Still, the system has been categorized by the FDA as a humanitarian use device, meaning there is a “reasonable assurance” that the device is safe and its “probable benefit outweighs the risk of illness or injury.”

Good news for people with vision impairment, and a big step in the direction of restoring sight. And of course, a possible step on the road to human enhancement and augmentation. As always, every development that is made in the direction of correcting human impairment offers the future possibility of augmenting otherwise unimpaired human beings.

infraredAs such, it might not be long before there are devices that can give the average human the ability to see in the invisible spectrum, such as IR and ultra-violet frequencies. Perhaps also something that can detect x-rays, gamma ray radiation, and other harmful particles. Given that the very definition of cyborg is “a being with both organic and cybernetic parts”, the integration of this device means the birth of the cybernetic age.

And be sure to check out this promotional video by Second Sight showing how the device works: