THE BLINDNESS CURE: HOW TO RESTORE AWARENESS AND WHY YOU NEED TO

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A treatment for the commonest cause of blindness could be available within five years, scientists believe, after revealing the first two patients given a revolutionary stem cell therapy have regained enough vision to be able to read.

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The two patients have advanced AMD — age-related macular degeneration — which destroys the central vision. Both were losing their sight. They were, said their surgeon, unable to see a book, let alone the printed letters. In the future, the scientists behind the breakthrough anticipate the procedure could be as common as cataract surgery, helping large numbers of the , to , people in the UK who are losing their sight because of AMD.

The retinal pigment epithelial RPE cells in the macula are crucial to the functioning of the light sensitive photoreceptor cells, which die without RPE support. The two patients, a woman in her 60s and man in his 80s, are the first in the UK to have the treatment, and were chosen because of their advanced disease — they would have gone blind within six weeks of the blood vessel leakage. Each had one eye implanted with the patch, which consisted of a membrane covered with human embryonic stem cells engineered to differentiate into RPE cells.

Humayun and Clegg propose to use this patch to treat a condition called age-related macular degeneration AMD. The RPE gives key support for the photoreceptor layer lying just in front of it. Positioning the patch in just the right spot will be tricky business—precisely the kind of challenge that surgeons like Humayun crave.

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The trial just started and should end by If it works—a big if, as with all these projects—it could be useful in treating AMD and other forms of blindness. Humayun and Clegg also might learn things about how to fuse such cells into biological structures in other organs, paving the way for other cell-patch implants.

The untapped potential of stem cells has drawn others pursuing blindness cures, including Henry Klassen of the University of California, Irvine. Klassen has spent 30 years studying how to coax progenitor cells—former stem cells that have begun to move toward being specific cell types—into replacing or rehabilitating failed retinal cells.

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Kristin Macdonald, a something California resident who was nearly totally blind from retinitis pigmentosa, received the treatment in one eye in June She tells of a man who, having once almost walked into an elephant, thanked Ndume after treatment because he could now see wandering animals; of a woman whom, after treatment, Ndume found utterly absorbed in removing every last bone from the fish she was eating; of a woman who, at 46, could finally see her young son. Ndume has collected many such stories during the past 20 years as she has pursued her own experiment in ending blindness.

Clearly the cure works. She and others doing similar work are testing whether humanity, once possessing a cure, will bother to deliver it to all who need it. Now the blind finally have a chance at sight with the help of ophthalmologist Asim Sil, who treats patients transported by boat. Cataracts, a disease of poverty, cause half of all blindness on Earth.

In the developed world, people with cataracts routinely get treated as soon as they have trouble seeing the TV.


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In the developing world, people with cataracts routinely go blind. The treatment everywhere is simple: Get clinician and patient in the same room, prep the latter, spend 15 to 20 minutes replacing the cloudy natural lens with a clear artificial lens, do a post-op checkup. Yet it reaches few who need it. She bore their baby alone, finished her ophthalmology training, rejoiced when Namibia won its independence in , and returned for good in with her child, her education, and a determination to help those who could not see. More than patients had signed up.

Only 82 came, because so many were scared of having their eyes cut open.

This woman was one of the brave ones. When Ndume held the camp at Rundu the next year, the same woman came in, exultant. But first she pulled Ndume by the hand to the clinic door. Outside were scores of people eager for the surgery after seeing what it did for others. Ndume treated hundreds that week. The UN honor was a great boost. Doing that, however, will require not just camps but also permanent infrastructure to make treatment routine. Scheduled for five days, she stayed for seven, did more than a hundred operations, and left a waiting list of hundreds. That day Ndume performed nine cataract operations before lunch.

Observing one, I saw for the first time a knife slice into an eyeball.

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The sight disturbed me—in part, I realized, because nothing symbolizes awareness as much as an eye wide open. Here was an eye absurdly wide open, thanks to the ophthalmic speculum holding back its lids—yet utterly oblivious to the steel carving a curve in its cornea. Recognizing that made it easier to watch. I knew that the anesthetic would soon fade and that once it did, the eye would see clearly.

Read Caption. Sixty-year-old Mahammad Ali Molla, blind since age 46 after decades of complications from sap that got in his eyes at age 22, depends on care from relatives, including his grandson right , in West Bengal, India.

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Millions in the developing world go blind because they lack access to treatment. By David Dobbs. Photographs by Brent Stirton. This story appears in the September issue of National Geographic magazine. The eye-care team, led by Asim Sil, travels this remote, river-laced region by boat. The Argus bypasses faulty retinal cells to send data from a camera down the optic nerve to the brain. The challenge of ending treatable blindness, though, is another matter altogether. Blindness: A Global View.

The poorest countries of Africa and Asia are hot spots of blindness. Percentage of population visually impaired, including blind. No data. Moderately or severely visually impaired. After graduation, she took her motivational speaking on the road, where she shared stages with celebrities like singer Demi Lovato, activist Malala Yousafzai and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson. She said she had a particular connection with actor Martin Sheen. Martin Sheen was another speaker.


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I was backstage with him, he gave me this beautiful rosary, and he was so supportive. It's not about you, it's about them and who's watching, and what they need to hear. It's about giving yourself. That message was really important to me. Her family is also very supportive. In fact, her mother currently works with Burke full-time on her freelance speaking, writing and YouTube business. When she got burnt out on speaking though she still speaks on a freelance basis , YouTube was a comfort to Burke.

Burke started her own channel about five years ago as a creative outlet, and because she had other interests in addition to disability rights. Once I started wearing the clothes I liked and letting my awkward blind girl moments shamelessly show, and making a joke of it, owning it, I liked who I was better. It attracted people to me because they could see that confidence and joy.