In a race to cure blindness, three advances come closer to reality
Scientists have long known that while our eyes do most of the heavy lifting of sight—taking in particles of light, bending and refracting them, turning them into electrical impulses—we actually “see” with our brains. Between the eye and the mind, however, a lot can go wrong, and until recently, if someone’s vision started to go or was never there to begin with, there wasn’t much doctors could do about it. Now, thanks to an explosion of new research, scientists at a stage in biology where they “know a heck of a lot about the causes of vision problems,” says Dr. Paul A. Sieving, director of the National Eye Institute at the National Institutes of the Health. “When you know the cause of something, you can begin to think about how to ameliorate it.”
This has led to a number of major advances in the treatment of blindness using implants, gene therapy and stem cells. Even some in the field are stunned at the progress. “If you asked me five or 10 years ago if you could replace lost photoreceptors in eyes, I would have said it was biologically impossible,” says Dr. Robert Lanza, a stem-cell researcher who is doing just that.
As science nears closer to bringing treatments for blindness to market, physicians will have to determine which option is best for which patient, and the competition will be fierce. For now, read about three people receiving cutting-edge experimental treatments that even a decade ago would have been unthinkable.