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Stem Cell Treatment Could Possibly Cure Blindness

Brian Buntz

March 2, 2016

4 Min Read
Stem Cell Treatment Could Possibly Cure Blindness

A controversial stem cell treatment apparently is enabling some blind patients to be able to see, including a patient named Vanna Belton from Cockeysville, PA who had been blind some five years before treatment.

Brian Buntz

stem cellHaving lost her vision for about five years from optic neuritis, the 29-year Vanna Belton opted to have an experimental stem cell treatment. A week after treatment, she noticed that she was able to read license plates. A week after that, she was able out people's' faces. She was ultimately able to navigate without the use of a cane.

The treatment, developed by an independent Florida researcher Jeffrey N. Weiss, MD, PhD, is puzzling even the doctors who formerly treated Belton because they are unsure of how it works.

In all, Weiss says that 60% of the 278 patients treated with stem cells have regained some sight. Patients in the clinical trial include those suffering from macular degeneration, glaucoma, and other conditions.

He has published a research summary of the study in Neural Regeneration Research, which demonstrates the improvement a single patient before and after treatment.

Pre-treatment best-corrected visual acuity at the Wilmer Eye Institute was 20/800 Right Eye (OD) and 20/4,000 Left Eye (OS). Four months following treatment in SCOTS, the central visual acuity had improved to 20/100 OD and 20/40 OS.

"We didn't know how penicillin worked for many years, but it saved many lives in the meantime," Weiss told the Baltimore Sun. "It is hubris to think that something can't work until you understand how it does. ... It is more important what the patient sees, not what I see."

Belton learned of a stem cell clinical trial after a physician recommended that she search for novel treatments on clinicaltrials.gov. On that site, she found out about a clinical trial from Weiss that involved injected stem cells into the eyes--around the retina, in the retina, or into the optic nerve.

Local doctors dismissed the treatment. Nevertheless, Belton managed to save $20,000 for the treatment, in which bone marrow was harvested from her hip for the purpose of harvesting stem cells. Those cells were then injected into the retina of the right eye and the optic nerve of the left eye.  

Weiss is a somewhat controversial figure because he doesn't necessarily follow normal clinical trial protocols and, in this case, didn't perform an animal study or use a computer model before testing the treatment in humans. In addition, he also didn't randomize the trial by using placebos in study participants.

Weiss had decided against those protocols because he lacked the patients for academic research, according to the Baltimore Sun.

Furthermore, Weiss was able to skirt some FDA regulation because of how the agency classifies stem cells. While sometimes classifies stem cells as "investigational" drugs, other times it doesn't, such as when the cells are minimally processed and are harvested and later reimplanted into the same patients.

Weiss gained approval for the trial from an ethics review panel at the International Cellular Medicine Society.

Although Belton, the patient mentioned at the beginning of this article is still legally blind (Dr. Weiss says she is now "near vision"), she is now able to perform many tasks that she couldn't before such as make out the words on restaurant menus. She plans on receiving additional stem cell treatments from Dr. Weiss.

Last year, researchers in the United Kingdom performed a similar treatment by surgically transplanting. Sciencealert reported last year that the treatment was promising for patients suffering from wet macular degeneration.

The experimental procedure, which was performed on the anonymous patient last month, involves surgically transplanting eye cells (retinal pigment epithelium) to the patient's eyes. The eye cells, derived from stem cells, are transferred via a specially engineered patch inserted behind the retina.

A year earlier, The Lancet published a study on a clinical trial involving 18 patients with vision loss from macular degeneration who were treated with embryonic stem cells. CNN reported at that time that a 75-year-old man who had 20/400 vision saw his vision improve treatment to 20/40.

Learn more about cutting-edge medical devices at BIOMEDevice Boston, April 13-14, 2016.

Brian Buntz is the editor-in-chief of MPMN and Qmed. Follow him on Twitter at @brian_buntz. 

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