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Blind Man Sees Stem Cells as the Only Hope

By Michael Blackley, The Scotsman, May 9, 2007

With the anticipation of restoring his vision with the assistance of a stem cell treatment, a blind man has taken action and undergone the controversial procedure.

Despite the caution from a UK medical authority who called the procedure "implausible", James decided to go to a new clinic in Germany due to his desperation. James has been unable to see anything for 23 years.

James had plans to journey to Holland for the £14,000 procedure. But after authorities shut the clinic down, the 44-year-old Meadowbank citizen was forced to alter his plans.

He searched for a different place, and on April 25th he had bone marrow stem cells taken form his hip at the recently set-up Xcell Center at the Institute for Regenerative Medicine in Cologne.

While the cells were being primed and stored, James returned to Edinburgh to wait. Last Thursday he was back in Germany and the cells were inserted into his spine.

He will have to pass the time for about 8 weeks in Edinburgh to see if his vision will be affected. That is the time period the stem cells will require to manage their way around his body.

He was told that June 28th is the date he could initially anticipate to see some sort of encouraging result and he has not experienced any detrimental side-effects to this point so far.

The condition James suffers from is called Leber's atrophy. This is the first case the German clinic has treated.

"They said that I'd be the first person to have tried this and they were confident enough to say they would go ahead with it," said James.

"I was put under a local anesthetic and it made me numb from the waist down. When that wore off the bottom of my spine was agony for a day or two - like no pain I've ever felt before - and I was violently sick."

"I'm back to normal again now, though. My spine feels a bit different, but it's not agony."

"I really hope it works but all I can say now is that I've done as much as I can."

"I'm proud that I have gone through with it and even if it doesn't work out at least I'll know I've done my best."

James had been consulting with Dr. Robert Trossel in Rotterdam.

Trossel's clinic was featured in a BBC documentary where officials claimed that he was utilizing stem cells that had not been screened for infections such as CJD and HIV, and were not permitted for use in humans.

The clinic was closed following the broadcast, weeks before the appointment James had scheduled.

One of the UK's foremost experts in Leber's atrophy, Patrick Yu Wai Man in the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, originally warned James about the clinic in Holland.

With James deciding on going through with the treatment Mr. Yu Wai Man conveyed his concern when he was asked today.

"There is no proven treatment of Leber's optic atrophy," said Yu Wai Man.

"The problem with James is compounded by the fact he has had this for 23 years. It is a problem with the optic nerve and the treatment proposed to him is implausible."

"There have been no proper animal studies to say whether stem cells can regenerate the optic nerve."

“It has to be considered with grave skepticism."

A spokeswoman for the British Medical Association in Scotland said:

"We would urge any patient to speak to a specialist or their GP before considering such options."

The German clinic did not make anyone available for comment.

The method involves with about one million restorative cells being introduced into the patient's nervous system. The cells are derived from umbilical cord blood and administered to the back of the arms, back, or neck by injection.

The cells begin to restore the damaged tissue once they pass through through the body and attach themselves to the optic nerve.

The patient's vision is restored after the appropriate nerve tissue is produced by the stem cells. With the stem cells completing the renewal, the eye functions as if the original optic nerve was normal.

However, assertions that the body would destroy the cells prior to their arrival at the nervous system are a potential worry. Immune rejection would make the treatment meaningless.

Some experts also believe the optic nerve to be past the point of repair if it has been damaged for more than 3 months.

Other scientists are uncertain that the cord blood cells could fix the entire span of the optic never since it is one of the longest in the entire body.


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