When we think of something as broad as blindness, we have to acknowledge the many causes of it. Not everyone who's blind is simply born with eyes that don't work, there are a large number of conditions that affect peoples' eyesight, with many causing eventual blindness in its victims.
We're starting to see some amazing developments in this field though, including a newly-approved eyedrop that's all but fully cured one young boy's blindness, restoring his vision in both eyes.
The Starting Point
In an incredible scientific first, researchers have developed a topical treatment that has proven to help reverse blindness in a patient.
It all began when scientists were experimenting with treatments and medications to help patients with dystrophic epidermolysis bullosa (DEB), also known as butterfly skin disease. DEB is a genetic disorder that prevents the body from producing collagen 7, a protein that strengthens the skin.
Without that collagen, the skin becomes extremely fragile, with even the gentlest of touches causing blisters and wounds. It's most commonly seen in the hands and feet, but can also be present in the eyes, mouth, and throat.
Those whose DEB affects their eyes often lose large portions of their vision to this scarring, leaving them blind. That's where this new treatment has made huge headway.
Vyjuvek is the very first gene therapy to be approved to treat DEB, having seen great results when using it to treat blisters caused by the disorder. This is where 14-year-old Antonio Vento Carvajal comes in, a young boy with DEB so severe he's had multiple surgeries to remove the scar tissue that repeatedly builds up in his eyes. That tissue would leave him with vision that he described as "like looking through thick fog."
A New Method
Antonio's doctor at the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, Alfonso Sabater, reached out to the team behind Vyjuvek to see if they could potentially create a version that could heal the boy's eye-scarring. Vyjuvek has to be applied directly to the wounds caused by DEB in order to work, meaning most traditional topical methods wouldn't be safe to put in someone's eyes.
They happily took that project on and later developed eye drops that would be applied to Antonio's eyes after his next scar tissue removal surgery.
They began the test on just one eye, removing the scarring and applying the eyedrops. The results were fantastic. Eight months after the first treatment, his vision was still near-perfect, his treated eye not showing any signs of developing more scar tissue.
They did the same treatment on the other eye, and now he just has to apply the eyedrops once a month.
"I've seen the transformation in Antonio’s life," Dr. Sabater said. “He’s always been a happy kid. Now he’s very happy. He can function pretty much normally. He can read, he can study, he can play video games.”
Now both Sabater and the Vyjuvek team are working on getting these eyedrops to more patients, including patients who don't have DE, hoping it will be able to treat other, more common eye disorders as well.
Antonio's mother was initially scared by the idea as it was an experimental form of treatment, but now she couldn't be more grateful.
She urges other families looking for similar help, "Don't be afraid." She has witnessed a miracle first hand and is hoping others do too!