Venna Belton was blind. She had been blind for five years. “When I realized I could see the license plates, we started walking around the neighborhood reading them,” she told the Baltimore Sun. This was the first time she could see since 2009. “We drove around and read store signs. The Pennsylvania Dutch Market. The tanning salon,” she continued. Her sight was restored when stem cells from her bone marrow were injected directly into the retina of her right eye, and the and the optic nerve of her right eye. The catch? Well, not even the doctor who restored her sight can explain how his treatment helped her.
In 2009, Belton realized that her sight was blurring. Just weeks later, she was blind. She was diagnosed with optic neuritis, or optic nerve inflammation. Doctors initially believed that her condition was temporary, but revised their opinion after the condition persisted for half a year. “Legally blind is classified as 20 over 200 and I was 20 over 3000 in both eyes,” she said.
After conventional medicine failed to provide a solution, Belton went through the gamut of alternative treatment options – from Chinese herbs to acupuncture. Then she found Dr Jeffrey Weiss’s study on clinicaltrials.gov. Weiss was searching for blind test subjects for his stem cell study. He promised nothing, and was accepting every person willing to pay 20,000 dollars for the chance to have a needle stuck into their eye, and take a chance at a miracle.
Against the advice of her doctors, one of whom called her stupid, she went ahead with the program. The treatment took 4 hours. Bone marrow was extracted from her hip, stem cells separated by a machine, and then injected into her right eye’s retina and into her left eye’s optic nerve. Weiss didn’t first test his theory on lab animals, nor did he run computer simulations, nor test for the placebo effect by randomly assigning patients in a fake procedure.
Though Dr Jeffrey Weiss’ treatment is unorthodox, he doesn’t lack for qualifications: he’s board-certified in ophthalmology, and once taught at Harvard University. However, he lost patience with the slow peer-review process and requisite fund-raising.
The patients he treat have no other options. “Patients with untreatable, severe, optic-nerve or retinal conditions that have led to legal blindness or worse,” he said. “This has been the most rewarding part of my entire career in retina, which I’ve been practicing since the early 80’s, because I am treating people who are untreatable,” Weiss said. “I’m treating only conditions that have no treatment. Patients who have no hope.”
According to Weiss, 60% of his test subjects regained some amount of sight. “We didn’t know how penicillin worked for many years, but it saved many lives in the meantime,” Weiss said. “It is hubris to think that something can’t work until you understand how it does… It is more important what the patient sees, not what I see.”
While he doesn’t have an exact explanation, it might have something to do with the regenerative properties of stem cells- so named because they form the basis for every other cell in the body. Recently, stem cells were used to regrow knee cartilage in world-first trials.
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