Is the cure for blindness here? As a US veteran receives the world’s first eye transplant, could this scientific breakthrough be the catalyst for a new future?
- Military veteran survived an electric shock and now has been given a new eye
- Experts say it may be ‘many years’ before an eye transplant can cure blindness
A US military veteran has become the first patient in the world to have someone else’s eye transplanted after a near-deadly electrical accident.
Aaron James, 46, miraculously survived a 7,200-volt electric shock when his face accidentally touched high-voltage wiring in 2021.
The accident left him with severe injuries to his left arm, nose, will ceftin treat a sinus infection lips, front teeth, left cheek, and chin. His eye also had to be removed.
But in May, a team of 140 medics in New York City performed a 21-hour eye and partial face transplant, the first surgery of its kind.
Up until this point, eye transplants had been thought impossible due to the complex network of nerves and blood vessels connecting the eye to the brain.
Doctors have now said it’s possible the father-of-one will be able to see out of the transplanted eye eventually.
Experts told MailOnline it is an ‘exciting development but warned it is ‘too early to say’ whether the procedure marks a step towards curing blindness.
Aaron James, 46, is the first patient in the world to have someone else’s eye transplanted after a near-deadly electrical accident
What causes blindness?
Injuries, infections and many medical conditions can cause blindness, which can vary from severe sight impairment to total blindness.
Globally, at least 2.2billion people have a vision impairment or blindness, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
In the UK, 340,000 are registered as blind or partially sighted, according to the NHS.
Chemical burns, exposure to toxins, physical fights and industrial accidents are some of the most common way people can become blind due to an injury. But accidents involving sports, cars and fireworks can also be culprits.
Dr Eduardo D Rodriguez (right), lead surgeon director of the Face Transplant Program at NYU Langone, led the 21-hour operation
Mr James has been able to return to Arkansas with his wife, Meagan, and daughter, Allie (pictured here)
Infections, such as measles, rubella and shingles, can also cause blindness. However, this is not common in the UK.
Trachoma, a disease is caused by the bacteria Chlamydia trachomatis, is the leading cause of preventable blindness in the world. It spreads in the poorest parts of Africa, South America, Asia, Australia and the Middle East, according to the WHO.
In the UK, age-related macular degeneration is one of the leading causes of vision loss. It causes a blurred or distorted area in a person’s vision.
Cataracts — which causes clouding in the lens of the eye — and glaucoma, which causes optic nerve damage and vison loss, can also lead to blindness.
A stroke can also lead to blindness if it happens in an area of the brain that is involved in seeing, as it reduces blood flow to your brain.
Arkansas veteran, 46, becomes first patient in the world to have a new EYEBALL transplanted during 21-hour surgery – after burning half his face off during electrical accident
What options currently available?
Medication and surgery can help treat some forms of severe blindness.
For example, eye drops can lower pressure in the eye and ease glaucoma symptoms.
And an operation can repair physical problems with the structure of the eye, such as replacing the cloudy lens in the eye of cataract patients with an artificial one.
However, for many, there is no treatment.
As it stands, they are offered help to make the most of any vision they have remaining or assistance adjusting to living with blindness.
Some cutting-edge technology is also being developed for those living with sight-loss. These includes high-tech glasses, which offer people with partial vision a way to navigate every day life. One pair, created by Oxford University, uses a video camera to interpret surroundings and make objects more distinct.
Could eye transplants be a cure?
Dr Eduardo Rodriguez, the lead surgeon director of the Face Transplant Program at NYU Langone who performed Mr James’s operation, said the operation marks ‘one major step forward’ and paves the way ‘for the next chapter to restore vision’.
Though Mr James can’t see out of his new eye yet, the team said that may be possible in the future.
‘We have now demonstrated that the procedure is safe and potentially efficacious, but we need time to determine if this step plays a role in enhancing the chance of sight restoration and if there’s anything further that can be done in the future to optimize the procedure,’ Dr Samer Al-Homsi said, one of the medics behind the op.
But experts say it could be a long time before we know if the procedure will be able to cure blindness.
Dr Peter Hampson, clinical director at the Association of Optometrists, told MailOnline: ‘If the donor eye is showing signs of health, this is potentially an exciting development and may have implications for the treatment of eye conditions and advance medical knowledge for future patients.
‘However, there is a need for caution at this stage; it is simply too early to say if this patient will regain their sight or indeed, if this is a step towards curing blindness.’
Mr James (pictured with his wife, Meagan) only spent 17 days in the intensive care unit
The surgery is ‘naturally complex’ because the optic nerve, which transmits signals from the eye to the brain, contains over 1million nerve fibres and for the eye to function normally, those fibres would need to be attached in the correct way to cure blindness, Dr Hampson said.
‘It may be many years into the future, before we know if that is possible’, he said.
‘Medical diagnosis and treatment are advancing at a considerable rate. With around 50 per cent of all sight loss in the UK avoidable, one of the central things we can all do to protect our vision is have regular sight tests with an optometrist to help ensure any sight threatening conditions are picked up and treated early’, he added.
What did the procedure involve?
A 140-person team performed the 21-hour surgery, which took place in two operating rooms.
One team was in the room with Mr James, removing parts of the face meant to be replaced, while another dissected the donor’s face and eyeball.
The main challenge was connecting the eye to the optic nerve, a part of the central nervous system that transmits visual information to the brain, and helping the nerves regenerate over time.
The team did this by combining the donor eye with adult stem cells found in the donor’s bone marrow. These cells were injected into the optic nerve in hopes of helping nerves regenerate and eventually restoring vision.
Mr James spent 17 days in the intensive care unit before he was discharged and sent to outpatient rehab.
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