New Advances in Treating Blindness

New Advances in Treating BlindnessAccording to the World Health Organization, tens of millions of people suffer from some degree of vision loss or blindness. While there have been strides in regards to treatment, scientists and researchers continue to explore alternative methods to help patients.

One such alternative is the use of the Argus® II retinal implant system, also known as the bionic eye.

“The Argus® II retinal implant – it’s an epiretinal implant in the back of the patient’s eye. The implant is actually 60 electrodes, similar to a 6-by-10 grid, in the back of the retina,” said Dr. Erin Kenny, chief of the William Feinbloom Vision Rehabilitation Center housed at The Eye Institute.

The implant helps patients see patterns of light and through rehabilitation they can learn to interpret those patterns. Rose Marie Wade, 62, recently underwent retina surgery at Will’s Eye Hospital in Philadelphia to receive the implant. And, she is currently undergoing rehabilitation with a team of specialists at the Feinbloom Center.

 “I think that the Argus® II retinal implant system has the potential to really help patients but so much right now is in the beginning stages,” said Dr. Kenny.

Another alternative under exploration is regenerative therapy. In studying the animal kingdom, researchers noticed that fish and amphibians are able to regenerate their limbs and tails after suffering an injury.

Using this same concept, experts are hoping to find a way to coax the eye into healing itself. In August, a team from the University of Washington successfully regenerated retinal cells in mice. The cells were fully formed and appeared to function normally but despite the progress, this method isn’t quite ready for testing on humans.

A third alternative researchers say appears to be more encouraging is gene therapy.  An experimental procedure was conducted last year involving a female patient with macular degeneration.  Macular degeneration occurs when the center portion of the retina deteriorates, eventually leading to the loss of vision.

The patient was given a transplant of stem cells using cells from her own skin. After surgery, she reported her dimmed vision had improved, becoming brighter.  Even more promising – one ?year later, the new cells were still functioning properly and her improved vision remained.

“Gene therapy for sure is a great alternative,” Dr. Kenny said. “At the Feinbloom Center, we see those really rare retinal dystrophies and rare retinal degenerations. Those patients are candidates who could really benefit from that.” These latest results and research studies suggest that vision loss and blindness could one day become a more treatable condition. And although there have been many advanced breakthroughs in recent years, the consensus is there is still more work to be done.

“Although I’m a supporter of new medicines and new technologies, I think all of these things work in collaboration with vision rehabilitation. There isn’t one sole answer,” said Dr. Kenny. “It’s going to continue to be a teamwork effort in order to provide the best care for patients.”