Hope of vision

Published: Sunday 15 December 1996

ABORTED foetuses are the new tools to cure blindness. Researchers transplanted light-sensitive cells from the eyes of aborted foetuses into the eyes of blind adults, enabling them to see partially. Though the experiments have not restored complete vision, its preliminary success have buoyed hopes about future endeavours.

The adults who received the transplants suffered from a genetically blinding condition called retinis pigmentosa (RP) which occurs usually in victims around 30 years or older. Their vision degenerates to such an extent that the victims can at best distinguish between light and dark. Said Manuel del Cerro from the University of Rochester, us, who led the research, of the experiments, "It appears that we have a procedure that improves the condition of some rp patients, where so far, there has not been an effective treatment to reverse even to a small extent the disease."

So far, 15 patients have received the transplants using pigmented epithelial cells from the retinas of 18-24-week-old aborted foetuses. In five patients, the operation failed because the transplants were rejected. In the rest 10, "they seem to be doing well, with little evidence of rejection over a year and a half later", according to Cynthia Mackay, an opthalmologist at the Columbia University, New York.

In their latest work, del Cerro and his colleagues used cells from foetal retinas that were destined to become light-sensitive cells called rods and cones (instead of pigmented epithelial cells), from 14-19-week-old aborted foetuses. Of the eight who were transplanted at least one year ago, two can now make out smudgy images when a hand is held 10 inches in front of their faces. One patient could even count fingers at the same distance, while another could do so at a greater distance.

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