Eye Health news 2016: Woman regains sight after stem cell procedure

After undergoing a stem cell surgery, Vanna Belton, who has been blind for more than half a decade, is able to see again.

The surgery involved her stem cells that were extracted from her bone marrow and injected into the optic nerves of her left eye and the retina of her right eye.

(PixaBay/Adina Voicu)

"When I realised I could see the license plates, we started walking around the neighbourhood reading them," she told the Baltimore Sun. "We drove around and read store signs. The Pennsylvania Dutch Market. The tanning salon."

She further added that after the surgery, it would be the first time since 2009 that she is able to navigate her way without her cane. It was in 2009 when she was first diagnosed with an eye problem called optic neuritis — the inflammation of an optic nerve in which the nerve could no longer send signals to the brain, eventually leading to blurred vision.

Doctors first thought that her eye condition was caused by multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disorder. Tests, however, showed that this was not the case. Additionally, they thought her blindness was temporary, but retracted it after six months of not seeing any improvement.

Belton underwent almost five hours of surgical procedure in which her stem cells were extracted from her hip and injected in different parts of each of her eyes. She then gradually regained some of her vision.

The catch, though, is that her own ophthalmologist cannot explain why the stem cell surgery works. Dr. Jeffrey Weiss did not follow the usual steps of clinical studies wherein a new treatment is first tested on animals in a lab and eventually put into a series of clinical trials.

He holds two theories, though — either the injected stem cells repaired the stem cells in the eye that have malfunctioned or they totally replaced them.

"We didn't know how penicillin worked for many years, but it saved many lives in the meantime," Weiss explained. "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."

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