Oxford: Scientists Save People's Sight

16 January 2014, 08:36 | Updated: 16 January 2014, 08:45

The sight of two men has been SAVED by scientists at Oxford University

The pair, who both suffered a rare inherited eye disease recieved pioneering gene therapy to restore their vision, having been told they'd end up blind. 

It's hoped the technique could be used to treat other genetic causes of blindness.

 Professor Robert MacLaren, who led the gene therapy operations at Oxford Eye Hospital, said: "We're absolutely delighted with the results so far. It is still too early to know if the gene therapy treatment will last indefinitely, but we can say that the vision improvements have been maintained for as long as we have been following up the patients, which is two years in one case. 

"In truth, we did not expect to see such dramatic improvements in visual acuity and so we contacted both patients' home opticians to get current and historical data on their vision in former years, long before the gene therapy trial started. These readings confirmed exactly what we had seen in our study and provided an independent verification.''

Jonathan Wyatt's one of them, having been diagnosed with a rare inherited eye disease when he was 20 years old: "When I got home, I looked at Diana's mobile phone and said, I can see the digits.  I switched it on and I could see the menu."

It is the first time gene therapy has successfully been applied to the light-sensitive photoreceptors of the retina, the digital camera at the back of the eye. 

Preliminary results from the first six patients taking part in a Phase One trial surprised and delighted the Oxford University team. 

Although the trial was only designed to test safety and dosages, two men with relatively advanced disease experienced dramatic improvements to their eyesight.

The Science bit:

The treatment involves injecting a harmless virus carrying a properly functioning copy of the CHM gene directly into the retina's light-sensitive cells. "If we were able to treat people early, get them in their teens or late childhood, we'd be getting the virus in before their vision is lost,'' said the professor. If the treatment works, we would be able to prevent them from going blind.'' 

Although Prof MacLaren describes the procedure as being similar to cataract surgery, it is a highly skilled and delicate operation taking up to two hours. Nevertheless he insists it is well within the scope of other eye surgery centres.