Is a Cure For Blindness In Sight? 

Can a blind person’s sight be restored? Scientists are now confident that blindness will soon be a thing of the past 

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New exciting research is allowing doctors to do what was once unheard of: restore blind people’s sight. (Photo: iStock)

Nearly 10 million people suffer from blindness in India. The Prevention of Blindness Week is observed in the country from the 1st to 7th April to increase awareness about this painful condition.

As you read this line an exceptional thing is happening.

A stream of light from the text you’re reading is bouncing into your eyeballs and falling on the photo-receptor cells on the retina. This visual information is sent to the brain as a kind of code, where it is reconstructed to make up the letters in this sentence you are reading right now.

So while your eyes do most of the heavy lifting of sight; you actually “see” with your brains.

But a lot can go wrong between the eyes and the brain.



Experts are confident they will be able to develop a new treatment to help millions across the world, whose vision has been impaired by disease or age (Photo: iStock)
Experts are confident they will be able to develop a new treatment to help millions across the world, whose vision has been impaired by disease or age (Photo: iStock)
By conservative estimates of the Union Health Ministry, of the 37 million people who are blind in the world, more than 10 million are in India. Most of them lose vision with diseases of the retina like macular degeneration.

And there’s little that can be done for them. But now, thanks to an explosion of new research by Indian scientists across the world, blindness might be off the market in the near future.

For now, read about 3 cutting-edge, experimental treatment that even five years ago, would have been unthinkable.

1. Stem Cell Therapy



(Left to right) Professor Funderburgh, from the University of Pittsburgh poses with reputed Indian ophthalmological surgeon, Dr Sayan Basu, whose study on using stem cells to repair scarred corneas is now being tried on 10 blind patients in India (Photo: Pittsburgh School of Medicine)
(Left to right) Professor Funderburgh, from the University of Pittsburgh poses with reputed Indian ophthalmological surgeon, Dr Sayan Basu, whose study on using stem cells to repair scarred corneas is now being tried on 10 blind patients in India (Photo: Pittsburgh School of Medicine)
It was a eureka moment for Hyderabad’s eminent eye surgeon, Dr Sayan Basu when he found a reservoir of stem cells in the area of the eye behind the cornea, which could be transformed to potentially reverse blindness.

This was a part of a joint research between India’s LV Prasad Eye Institute and the Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

Dr Basu then implanted more than two lakh cultured stem cells in blind mice, and discovered that in a month’s time, some of these cells integrated smoothly with the local eye cells to restore sight.

But this exciting finding has to overcome big obstacles. For starters, scientists will have to coax the ability of these stem cells to turn safely into specialized cornea cells that transmit light rather than become cancerous.

After fixing this hurdle in a laboratory environment, Dr Basu is conducting a pilot clinical trial on 10 blind patients in Hyderabad. The results of these will be available by December this year.

Who Will Benefit:

If all goes well, then this technique will restore vision to 2 million people with corneal blindness in India. Right now, a majority of these patients wait for years for a transplant; there are only enough corneas available for 10,000 to 20,000 people each year.

The patient who receives a cornea transplant then faces long post-surgical follow-up care of life-long medications and a small chance of rejection. The stem-cell procedure is non-surgical and requires only a mild anaesthetic. It also greatly reduces any chance of rejection.

2. The Bionic Eye



Bionic Man: 80-year-old Ray Flynn is the world’s first patient to get a successful bionic eye. ‘Delighted’ Flynn hopes in time it would improve his vision sufficiently to help him with day-to-day tasks like gardening and shopping (Photo: AFP)
Bionic Man: 80-year-old Ray Flynn is the world’s first patient to get a successful bionic eye. ‘Delighted’ Flynn hopes in time it would improve his vision sufficiently to help him with day-to-day tasks like gardening and shopping (Photo: AFP)

The retinal implant that allows the blind to see via electrodes and a mini camera, has been successfully implanted in a 80-year-old blind Britisher. The patient can now see his family members, watch Manchester United on television, something he hasn’t done from the past eight years.

And now if the technology has got you impressed, then chew this: the patent to the bionic eye lies with Dr Rajat N Agarwal, a scientist of Indian origin at the University of Southern California, who first made this device in April, 2011.

The device has not yet been used on Indian patients because of the high costs; the device alone costs, Rs 22 lakhs, minus the hospital and surgical costs.

Now watch what it’s like to be among the first people in the world to get a bionic eye:


3. Gene Therapy



Age-related macular degeneration is the leading cause of blindness world-over, more than glaucoma and cataract combined. Gene therapy involves inserting a gene into the eye, a treatment that revives light-detecting cells (Photo: iStock)
Age-related macular degeneration is the leading cause of blindness world-over, more than glaucoma and cataract combined. Gene therapy involves inserting a gene into the eye, a treatment that revives light-detecting cells (Photo: iStock)

Macular degeneration is a condition of the eye, which starts with vision disappearing into blind spots and eventually everything fades to a dull, grey haze.

Researchers at Oxford University discovered that by replacing a missing protein gene into the retina, they can prevent cells from degenerating. And now that replacement protein has been found in algae.

Now algae, has an ‘eye-spot’ that makes use of light-sensitive proteins. In laboratory experiments, this algal protein restores 80% vision in mice. And it’s no far-out dream now, last month, the US FDA approved human clinical trials for it.



Who knew algae could be a rock star of the neuroscience world! (Photo: iStock)
Who knew algae could be a rock star of the neuroscience world! (Photo: iStock)

Who Will Benefit:

Macular degeneration is incurable right now. There are no exact statistics available in India, but doctors estimate, more than half of the blind population above 60 suffers from it.

The real takeaway from all of this is that we are eliminating human blindness. For all of history we haven’t been able to do anything about it and now we have three working solutions being tested in different parts of the globe.

Also Watch: Diabetes Can Make You Go Blind! Watch This To Understand the Disease Better

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