Blindness breakthroughs herald hope for the partially sighted

As a new gene therapy trial helps restore the sight of a partially sighted man, Edward Lander considers the developments that are repairing vision around the world

When choroideremia sufferer Jonathan Wyatt signed up for a gene therapy trial, he was told the treatment could stop the sight in his left eye from deteriorating further. In fact, his vision was improved so much by the treatment that he no longer needs to use his umbrella as a white stick. “Now when I watch a football match on the TV, if I look at the screen with my left eye alone, it is as if someone switched on the floodlights,” he says.

Scientists at the University of Oxford trialled the treatment on six participants suffering from the inherited sight loss-causing disease. Their aim was to preserve sight in the eye selected to undergo gene therapy.

The trial involved using a small safe virus to carry the CHM gene, which is defective in choroideremia sufferers, into the light-sensing cells in the retina. The original hope was that, once delivered, the CHM gene would begin producing protein to stop the cells dying off. To the researchers’ surprise, Wyatt and another participant found they were able to actually see better following the treatment.

The success of the trial is one of several recent global breakthroughs in the search for a blindness cure.

For example, scientists at the University of Cambridge have for the first time successfully printed cells from the eye using inkjet printing technology. Now they have proof in principal that the process works, the team plan to use it to produce artificial tissue grafts made from cells found in the retina.

Another area of research has focused on transplanting stem cells to repair eye cells destroyed by age-related macular degeneration, the most common cause of blindness in adults.

A team of researchers from the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of Bonn and the Neural Stem Cell Institute in New York found that stem cell implants were able to survive in rabbit eyes for a number of weeks. They ultimately hope to develop a clinical application for this method.

“Just the fact that we could potentially be able to take cells from a cadaver and grow them up in a dish and re-transplant them into somebody that needs that tissue is very exciting,” says neural stem cell scientist Dr Timothy Blenkinsop.

Elsewhere, companies have been working on technologies aimed at helping blind people pursue activities not previously thought possible, such as cycling and driving.

Ken Reid, RNIB chair for Scotland, who has been blind for decades but still rides tandem, has trialled the UltraBike, a bicycle fitted with ultrasonic sensors that detect obstacles in a cyclist’s way.

“The idea of riding solo again was quite scary,” he says. “On the back of a tandem is not the same as riding solo – you’ve got no control.”

The bike, created by Harrogate-based Sound Foresight Technology, is designed to be used only on established routes fitted with sensors.

Another vehicle likely to raise eyebrows among motorists is Google’s driverless car, which could enable blind people to get back behind the wheel.

However, Reid said that people in his situation are hesitant to pay the high price for new technologies. What they are really interested in, he said, are everyday devices such as smartphones with voice sensitive controls and book reading technologies, in which developers have taken the needs of blind people into account.

Blindness and art

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Blind artist Annie Fennymore uses her fingers to create shapes with putties, glues and pastes for the base layer of her paintings and has an electronic talking pen to identify colours

One is a blind painter whose work has been embraced by the art world. The other is an able sighted artist, making the headlines with his braille graffiti. Both are having an impact on the way blind and partially sighted people interact with the visual arts.

It wasn’t until after Annie Fennymore started to go blind that she took up painting. And more than 20 years later, with no vision remaining, she continues to inspire the blind community with her artworks. Annie’s portrait of her guide dog Amber was runner-up in the 2011 Helen Keller International award. Her art has been exhibited at the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists gallery and some of her floral work will be on show at The Beth Chatto Gardens in July.

“There are many people who are registered blind who have sufficient vision to see colour,” she said. “But I have no vision. I’ve had people say to me ‘if you can do it, then I can’.”

Annie regularly volunteers at the Essex Blind Charity, where she encourages people whose sight is deteriorating to explore their own creativity.

“I’m passionate to get it across that in blindness there’s life,” she said.

Meanwhile, a French artist going under the pseudonym The Blind has been making blind people smile with his braille inscriptions, one of which reads ‘Do not touch…’