A doctor from Florida claims that he has managed to “cure” 60 percent of his patients of blindness by injecting their eyes with stem cells derived from the participants themselves. The treatment is not being conducted in a controlled clinical trial, and the doctor involved is not affiliated to any university or government institution. Yet according to the Baltimore Sun, he claims to have restored over 100 people’s sight.
While local doctors advised against it, one of the patients, Vanna Belton, went ahead with the controversial procedure anyway. Belton was diagnosed in 2009 with optic neuritis, a condition in which the optic nerve swells and leads to blindness, though no doctor could definitively say that this is what she suffered from. She’d heard about stem cell treatment, and eventually found Dr. Jeffrey Weiss in Margate, Florida. He has apparently performed stem cell treatment on 278 blind patients, despite not being part of a university or clinical trial.
Belton reportedly paid Weiss $20,000 for the procedure, in which she had bone marrow from her hip removed, the stem cells extracted, and then injected back into her eyes. While Belton says that she can see again, another doctor has commented saying that she is still legally blind, as she only sees “islands” of vision among blind spots. Either way, apparently that is enough for Belton, as she is prepared to undergo further treatment from Weiss.
With no control for the trials, it is impossible to say whether or not the patients would have improved anyway without the treatment, and with so many different cases of blindness – the causes for which are widely varied – it is extremely difficult to suggest a mechanism in which the stem cells might have worked. Not only that, but the case study of Belton presented by Weiss and reported in the Baltimore Sun raised further issues as doctors were never sure of what the exact cause for her blindness was in the first place, let alone whether or not it could be fixed.
The idea of using stem cells to treat blindness is not a radical notion. The London Project to Cure Blindness started official clinical trials last year, in which they have treated 10 patients’ eyes with a “patch” seeded with human embryonic stem cells. The hope is that the cells will develop and cure the patients of age-related macular degeneration, and although the first trials have been on those who have the less common “wet” form of the condition, they hope it could also be used to treat “dry” macular degeneration. So far, one patient has apparently recovered some of her sight, though the researchers will be monitoring all the participants for 18 months.