After 13 years of work, a team of scientists reached an important milestone in the treatment of hereditary blindness through gene therapy. They used a cutting-edge technique to build light-harvesting proteins in a single eyeball, allowing a 58-year-old man to perceive some objects using special glasses. He could see blurred outlines in a narrow field of vision, which qualifies as partial restoration of vision.
Although the team is a long way from restoring full vision to people with hereditary blindness, this small success holds promise for more effective treatments in the future. The procedure is based on a gene therapy technique called optogenetics, previously used to explore the inner workings of the brain, which involves the use of a light-sensitive protein that allows nerve cells to send a signal to the brain when they receive a certain wavelength of light.
Scientists have previously injected animals with viruses programmed to turn normal cells into photoreceptors, or cells that respond to light. They had to make sure that enough light reached the eye to activate those optogenetic proteins, without amplifying the light so much that it would damage the delicate retina, and to do that, they chose to work with amber light, which is relatively easy on the eyes. They used gene therapy to create proteins that only pick up that kind of light, then invented glasses that can translate the world into pulses of amber light.
The glasses use technology to automatically adjust light levels and send them to the man’s eye. People receiving optogenetic therapy may need to use them to process visual information before it reaches the brain. Wearing the special glasses, a volunteer was able to see the stripes on a crosswalk, reach for a notebook on a table, and count the number of cups in front of him. His perception of objects was blurred and limited to a narrow field of vision.
What do you think of these advances in science?