Experimental Stem Cell Procedure Restores Vision for Patients with Eye Injuries

Homewood, Alabama – Phil Durst, a 51-year-old from Homewood, Alabama, has undergone an experimental stem cell procedure that restored his vision and improved his quality of life. Durst suffered a severe eye injury in a 2017 work accident when a chemical from a commercial dishwashing machine squirted into his eyes, causing excruciating pain and stealing his vision. He was also left unable to tolerate light and experienced four to five cluster headaches a day.

Durst was one of four patients who participated in the first-ever US study to test a stem cell transplant procedure for severe eye injuries. The study, led by Dr. Ula Jurkunas, an ophthalmologist at Mass Eye and Ear in Boston, aimed to treat a corneal disorder called “limbal stem cell deficiency,” which can occur after eye injuries and chemical burns. Patients with this condition cannot undergo corneal transplants, which are commonly used to improve vision, because they lack the essential limbal cells that replenish and maintain the cornea’s outermost layer.

The experimental procedure involves taking a small biopsy of stem cells from the healthy eye and growing them on a graft in a lab. A couple of weeks later, the expanded stem cells are transplanted into the injured eye. Unlike previous procedures that required large pieces of stem cells from a healthy eye, this technique minimizes the risk of damaging the good eye. Durst was the first patient to undergo the procedure, which used his right eye as a source of stem cells for the transplant.

The results of the early-stage research were published in the journal Science Advances, showing that all patients in the study had their corneal surfaces restored. Durst and another patient were able to receive transplants of artificial corneas, while the other two patients reported significantly improved vision with the stem cell transplant alone. One patient did not undergo the procedure due to inadequate expansion of the stem cells.

Although further treatment may be needed, the stem cell transplant procedure offers hope to patients with severe eye injuries who have limited treatment options. Dr. Tueng Shen, an ophthalmology professor at the University of Washington, commented on the unmet clinical need for this effort, as doctors currently lack a reliable source of cultivated limbal stem cells.

A larger clinical trial involving 15 patients is now underway to further study the effectiveness of the stem cell transplant procedure. One participant, Nick Kharufeh, who suffered an eye injury in 2020, has already experienced significant improvements in his vision and can now fly a small plane.


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