August 26, 2010 — -- For the 10 million people suffering from corneal blindness, the only way to gain sight has been through a hard to get corneal transplant, but that might change thanks to a medical breakthrough.
"I think this should give great hope to people with blindness," said Claes H. Dohlman, founder of the Cornea Service at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary.
In a new report, released in the Science Translational Medicine journal, doctors say that the artificial cornea coaxes the eye's own natural cornea cells and nerves to grow back and restore sight. The cornea worked in a first-stage study of 10 patients in Sweden. After two years, six of the patients had significantly improved vision with glasses and two were no worse.
"It does not appear that there are downsides because none of our patients showed any signs of reaction," said Dr. May Griffith from the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute.
Experts say the artificial cornea has the potential to be even more successful than donor corneas because there are fewer side effects.
The artificial cornea is a step toward helping the millions worldwide who are unable to find donors. In the U.S., where there are drives to encourage people to donate their corneas when they die, 42,000 people receive transplanted corneas each year. Outside of the United States, it's much harder for people to find donors and even when someone does receive a transplant, the donation requires a lifetime of drugs to fend off rejections.
The artificial cornea is just one of several breakthroughs in recent years for the blind.
Doctors have also grown corneas using a patient's own stem cells. In Italy, researchers studied a technique to repair damaged corneas by using patients' unscathed stem cells to grow new tissue that was grafted into the patient's own eye.
It was successful in 78 percent of patients, according to researchers, who followed the patients for 10 years after the procedure.
Silicone Irises and Tiny Telescopes
Back in the United States, doctors have implanted silicone irises in patients to restore sight.
Nathaniel Brantley, a Cincinnati boy who regained his sight in 2008, was suffering from a rare disease called Congenital Aniridia. He was born without irises, meaning he could see only in black and white until doctors implanted a silicone iris into his eye.
"I could see colors I was supposed to see," Brantley rejoiced to ABC News after the surgery.
This summer, scientists had another breakthrough for the blind, particularly those suffering from Macular Degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in older adults.
Ed Nungesser had been legally blind for years, unable to see his granddaughter. A miniature telescope, the fraction of the size of a penny, became his saving grace when it was implanted into his eye.
The first thing he saw: the face of his granddaughter, Faith.