New Gene Therapy Technique Shows Promise In Vision Restoration For Some Blind Patients


A new field of science suggests restoring vision to the blind might be within sight. A promising new technique described in a New England Journal of Medicine article this month, published by researchers led by Zhuo-Hua Pan, PhD at Wayne State University in Detroit, suggests restoring vision to the blind might be possible without the need for mechanical implants. The new technique has been extensively tested on animals and could be available for human trials as early as next year. It is only one recent exciting development in the field of optogenetics.

Normal eyesight is controlled by photoreceptors, or rods and cones, within the retina of the eye that interpret light and convert it into a visual representation.  In a functional eye, visual data is transferred from the rods and cones to ganglion cells, which carry information from the photoreceptors to the brain. When photoreceptors are damaged, eyesight is hindered. The new technique does not repair these photoreceptors, but instead bypasses them entirely. Researchers have found that by using gene therapy, ganglion cells and bipolar cells can be genetically altered to become light sensitive, essentially enhancing them to perform the job that the damaged rods and cones are no longer able to. Focusing on the ganglion cells, researchers have found that by inserting light-responsive molecules into the cells and shining different wavelengths of light on them, they are able to trigger the eyes’ visual receptors as though information was being passed from functional rods and cones.

To alter the ganglion cells, researchers relied on techniques developed in the emerging optogenetics field. The team packaged a light-sensitive molecule found in algae into a virus that could infect the ganglion and alter the genetic structure of its cells. The technique was tested on mice successfully.

Until now, solutions for total vision restoration came in the form of wearable technology such as Dapper Vision’s OpenGlass, which uses the Google Glass camera to interpret objects or the Argus II, which is an FDA-approved treatment option for a degenerative vision disorder called retinitis pigmentosa. This method is a combination implant coupled with wearable video recording glasses, which signal the chip implanted in the retina. The technique proposed by the team at Wayne State University represents the first treatment that would not require an implant or hardware to restore vision.

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