A Blind Patient Regained Partial Sight in a Breakthrough Study, Offering Hope to Millions

The darkness descends slowly for people with retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a degenerative eye disease that affects 2 million people worldwide. The condition is typically diagnosed in childhood or adolescence. Still, it can take until middle age before a person’s vision has deteriorated severely enough to be wholly or effectively blind. When the lights finally do go out, however, they stay out. Or that’s the way things used to be. In a breakthrough study published today in Nature Medicine, investigators report a relatively simple yet remarkably effective way to restore partial vision to RP patients—one that, with further research, may soon have broad application.

The key lies in the rod-shaped photoreceptors that govern peripheral vision and the cone-shaped receptors that give us our central view of the world. In people with RP, mutations in more than 70 genes cause slow deterioration of the rods, leading to tunnel vision and, later, the cones, leading to blindness. Light still streams into the eye through the natural lens, which could still reach the brain via the optic nerve. But the retina, which lies between the two, no longer works.

A team of researchers, led by Dr. José-Alain Sahel, professor of ophthalmology at Sorbonne University and the University of Pittsburgh, thought they might have a way to bring the retina back into the game: ChrimsonR. This protein opens electrical channels in neurons and makes them reactive to light. The trick was finding a way to deliver the protein—and the answer was to manipulate a harmless adenovirus so that it carried ChrimsonR genetically; the virus was then injected into the fluid-filled portion of the eye behind the lens.

Blind Patient

“The ChrimsonR sparks electrical activity,” says the Sahel. “It transforms the cells and makes them able to absorb light, though it takes about four months for the cells to take up the virus and the protein with it.” Nonhuman primate studies showed that the technique did not harm the eye and helped the researchers establish the proper dose of Chrimson4 to sensitize the retinal cells. For the human trial, the and his team worked with a 58-year-old man diagnosed with RP 40 years earlier and whose vision was limited to rudimentary light perception. They treated the poorer functioning of his two eyes—to spare the marginally healthier one if anything went wrong with the experiment—and injected it with a single dose of the altered virus.

Assuming the experiment worked, the following steps would not be as simple as waiting the required four months until the man’s vision returned in the treated eye. ChrimsonR is insufficient to restore the exquisitely complex interplay of rods and cones that give healthy eyes their rich, colorful, three-dimensional view of the world. Instead, it sensitizes cells mainly in the amber spectrum, making shapes and shadows discernible at that color frequency. Moreover, a healthy retina reacts in real-time to the amount and intensity of light striking it, becoming more reactive in low-light conditions and less reactive in bright sunlight, to prevent damage to retinal cells. To see through the treated eye, the patient must wear a pair of goggles that shifts incoming light to the amber spectrum and regulates it to a safe intensity.

“The eye needs a lot of light, but there is the danger that it could be a toxic level,” says Sahel. “Without the goggles, it could be like the patient looking directly into the sun.” While waiting for the ChrimsonR to take effect, members of Sahel’s team worked with the patient, training him with the goggles and running tests to see if he could distinguish objects placed on a table, point to them, count them, and pick them up. Over repeated trials, there were no results—until the Sahel finally recalls getting a call from one of his team members with a simple message: “He sees.”Around the four-month mark, the subject began achieving remarkable results on all the lab tests.

And in the months since that breakthrough, he has become able to navigate his world in new ways: he can detect the crosswalk at an intersection and count the number of white stripes demarcating it, perceive objects like a plate, a mug, and a phone; spot a piece of furniture in a room and see a door in a corridor. “He can also,” adds Sahel, “detect where people are.” Sahel believes the results will be long-lasting or even close to permanent. “We think this could last at least ten years, or it could be for a lifetime,” he says. “If not, we can always go back and re-inject.”

As to whether the treatment is ready for practical application beyond the one patient, Sahel says the answer is “a small yes and a big no.” The small yes is that the work was merely a feasibility study (but by any measure, it succeeded spectacularly). The big no is that a great deal more research must be conducted to learn more about dosing levels, to improve both the goggles and the training patients go through to use them, and to figure out when in the course of a person’s RP is the right time to begin the treatment—Sahel notes that for now, at least the procedure is only for people with very advanced disease. “People with RP can retain central vision for many years,” he says. “You always have to weigh the benefit versus the risk.”

Tyson Houlding
I’m a lifestyle blogger with a passion for writing, photography, and exploring new places. I started this blog when I was 18 years old to share what I was learning about the world with family and friends. I’ve since grown into a freelance writer, blogger, and photographer with a growing audience. I hope you find inspiration and motivation while reading through my work!