Researchers at the University of Oxford have just concluded a successful gene therapy study on blind mice. Ophthalmologists around the world believe this new procedure could revolutionize how doctors treat blinding conditions.
All of the mice used in this study had retinitis pigmentosa, which is one of the leading causes of blindness in adolescents. Scientists used viral vectors to inject genetic codes into the mice's eyes. This research was conducted at Oxford's state-of-the-art Nuffield Laboratory of Ophthalmology.
These genetic codes had specific instructions on how the eye can start producing the protein melanopsin. Melanopsin is a light-sensitive protein in the eyes that's important for optimal retinal function.
After this gene therapy injection, Oxford researchers collected data on the mice's visual functions for one year. As the months progressed, study authors wrote that the mice were able to see and avoid objects surrounding them with greater clarity.
Samantha de Silva, a specialist trainee in Oxford's ophthalmology department, was the lead author on this study. She told reporters that the results from this gene therapy test were "very exciting" and that she looks forward to organizing a clinical trial in the near future.
In addition to gene therapy, Oxford professors have tested hi-tech retinal implants in blind patients. While these artificial retinas were effective in some cases, implantation requires costly and dangerous surgical procedure.
Professor Mark Hankins, another author on the study, said he believes this gene therapy procedure will be far safer for human patients than retinal implants. He also said that this gene therapy procedure had "long-lasting" effects on the "restoration of functional vision." Dr. Hankins is a professor of visual neuroscience at Oxford.
Gene therapy is a relatively new medical procedure that modifies a patient's DNA. Gene therapists can either put a new genetic code into the patient or try to eliminate diseased cells.
Most people with blindness have a dysfunction with their retinal photoreceptors. The millions of photoreceptor cells in the back of our eyes are essential for transforming light waves from the external world into visual signals that the brain can comprehend.
Retinitis pigmentosa is an inherited eye disease that adversely affects a person's retina. Early symptoms often occur in childhood and include tunnel vision, blurred vision, and difficulty seeing in dimly lit places.
About 1 in 4,000 people have some form of retinitis pigmentosa now. Although there's no treatment for retinitis pigmentosa, doctors can help alleviate the symptoms with nutritional balancing and laser surgery.
Anyone struggling with retinitis pigmentosa in the UK should get in touch with the charity group RP Fighting Blindness. This reputable organization helps people with retinitis pigmentosa by providing them with quality information and organizing events in the community..