Published in Cumberland Times-News Wednesday, November 23, 2011.
"In this new biomedical race for breakthrough cures, I hope researchers in our country...will follow Hu’s lead to utilize cord blood or adult stem cells, rather than those from embryos. True hope, for any stem cell cure, lies in ethical harvesting."An ophthalmologist told me recently that scientific advancements might repair damaged optic nerves. “Hopefully,” he said, “you and I will live to see the day.”
That was the first time, since my vision loss April 17, 2006, I had heard of such possibilities. Optic nerve damage is irreversible, I’d been told.
Mine is a complication of heart surgery -- my second to correct birth defects, and their effects. My surgeon blames the 10 minutes, in a 10-hour operation, he needed to repair my aortic aneurism.
Vision experts say even momentary loss of blood flow to optic nerves results in blindness. Perhaps miraculously, I have a bit of residual vision in my left eye, enough to permit me to read, with magnification, and to help me figure out my surroundings.
Since seventh grade, I’ve been nearsighted; and for several decades, I’d been legally blind, though prescription glasses corrected by astigmatism to 20/20.
Perhaps being blind, without my glasses, all those years helped me to accept the permanent state; or perhaps it was because the blindness seemed minor, compared to other difficulties my recovery presented; or perhaps it was my abiding faith in God’s will. Regardless, gratefully, I embraced the challenge with remarkable grace.
Now I read online in the 2011 “Research Story” of Dr. Dong Feng Chen of the Schepens Eye Research Institute, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School: “we hope that functional restoration of sight after optic nerve injury may become possible in the near future, first in mice and then in people.”
That is exciting news, but the
U.S. has some catching up to do with . In the eastern city of China , as reported March 18, 2008 by National Public Radio, 600 foreigners and 2,300 Chinese already had received cord blood stem cell therapy at Beike Biotechnology, run by 40-something Dr. Sean Hu. Seventy percent, Hu claims, improved. Hangzhou
A researcher in
Los Angeles calls Hu’s therapies “extreme nonsense,” NPR reports, but a doctor at “concluded that (Hu’s) stem-cell therapy was the only clinical explanation for (his six-year-old patient’s) improvement.” The girl went from no light perception to recognizing large letters. University of Florida
According to the current National Institutes of Health Plan for Eye and Vision Research section on Low Vision and Blindness Rehabilitation, “Visual impairment is included among the 10 most prevalent causes of disability in the
.” United States
Besides optic neuropathies, other causes for low vision and blindness considered in the NIH report are retinal, corneal and lens diseases, cataracts, glaucoma, strabismis, amblyoopia, myopia, and other disorders of the ocular muscles.
Dr. Hu’s therapies cost hopeful patients tens of thousands of dollars, and seem to apply to infants and children. Experts do not understand how his therapy works, and they have no knowledge of long-term effects or risks.
In this new biomedical race for breakthrough cures, I hope researchers in our country will refine Hu’s technique, to understand the full treatment dynamic, and that they will follow Hu’s lead to utilize cord blood or adult stem cells, rather than those from embryos. True hope, for any stem cell cure, lies in ethical harvesting.
Vision loss changes life, but life is about change. I am thankful that I traveled and participated fully in community when I could, and enjoyed beauty when I saw it clearly. I have all those experiences to draw upon.
Now, in a narrow, grey-veiled, hazy montage, where people and obstacles materialize suddenly, like specters -- fuzzy-figured and featureless -- I ambulate in the dim glow of a nightlight. But I still love life, and I don’t fear death: Great gifts from God.