Vanna Belton who had been blind for 5 years received her sight recently, with the help of her bone marrow. An ophthalmologist got some stem cells from her bone marrow and injected it into her right eye’s retina and her left eye’s optic nerve.
Belton who used to walk with the assist of a cane said to the Baltimore Sun;
“When I realised I could see the license plates, we started walking around the neighbourhood reading them.
We drove around and read store signs. The Pennsylvania Dutch Market. The tanning salon,” she said, adding that her then fiancee couldn’t contain his excitement either.
It is something of a miracle that Belton who could hardly see was able to decipher letters and numbers, but even the doctor who operated on her, Ophthalmologist Jeffrey N. Weiss cannot explain how or why the procedure worked.
The use of stem cells for treatments often raises eyebrows among scientists who are studying the procedure. Stem cells gotten from any part of the body can be implanted to any cell in any other part of the body however, some scientists consider it a breach of ethics when used practically on humans.
This did not deter Dr. Weiss as he had to keep within means to get Belton and over 200 patients into surgery. This move was controversial in the sense that Weiss didnt go through the normal scientific research proceudre. Rather than performing the test on lab animals first and conducting clinical trials to determine if the test can be conducted on humans, Weiss went straight for conducting the test on humans.
To be able to carry this out, he had to register his trial with the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), this usually requires a recommendation from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). A stem cell as we well know is not a drug, so Weiss was able to sidestep the FDA approval . He also got Ethics review approval from the International Cellular Medicine Society.
Weiss began enrolling patients who could afford the US$20,000 fee for the unorthodox surgery. He however made no promises to them. Belton whose friends and family advised against it, decided to try Dr Weiss.
Belton underwent the surgery where stem cells were extracted from the bone marrow in her hip and injected into different areas in each eye. Belton who could only see shadows and walks with a cane can now walk without the cane and read menus and signs.
Belton is still considered legally blind and Dr Weiss’ experiment is by no means a standard cure, although he reported that 60% of the patients he operated on have better visions now.
Scientists hope to study Weiss’ journal on the procedure in order to fully understand the conditions behind the procedure. Belton is expected to continue receiving stem cell injections although it is not known how this might affect her and other patients in the long run.