Two years ago, surgeons at Oxford University began a medical trial to test a new therapy for reversing the effects of the genetic condition choroideremia, which slowly causes the carrier to go blind. The team of surgeons, led by Professor Robert MacLaren, used the technique of gene therapy to help a handful of patients regain their vision. The first patients to start the trial just recently completed the process.
The procedure included inserting a gene into each patient’s eyes, an operation which revives light-detecting cells in the back of the eye. The trial was incredibly successful, and the patients experienced a pause in the loss of sight, even seeing some improvement and increased sharpness. Professor MacLaren said that he felt “absolutely delighted” with how the tests came out, “We really couldn’t have asked for a better result.”
“I felt that I had come to the edge of an abyss”
One of the trial participants, Jonathan Wyatt, had been gradually losing his sight and was preparing for the ominous inevitability of complete blindness. His hope was that the operation would allow him to retain his current eyesight by pausing the cell deterioration. Not only did the operation stop the retrogression, it made Mr. Wyatt’s eyesight better. Other patients part of the trial who had less severe sight-loss even experienced an improvement in night-time vision.
Mr. Wyatt, while speaking with the BBC about his ordeal said, “I felt that I had come to the edge of an abyss. I looked down at total blackness. Professor MacLaren tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘come this way, it’s possible to see again’.” Mr. Wyatt’s wife explained that the loss of sight was causing her husband to become depressed, but, “now he is very optimistic. He is more independent, he can find things he couldn’t before, he can go to the shops on his own and he’s less of a nuisance!”
Effects Noticed Immediately After Operation
Wayne Thompson, another member of the patient group, spoke to the BBC about his experience. He explained that he noticed a change right away after the operation, saying that, “My color vision improved. Trees and flowers seemed much more vivid and I was able to see stars for the first time since I was 17 when my vision began to deteriorate.” He, like Mr. Wyatt, believed that he was going to eventually completely lose his eyesight, but following the procedure he seemed much more upbeat, “I’ve lived the last 25 years with the certainty that I am going to go blind and now (after the operation) there is the possibility that I will hang on to my sight.”