Russell Turnbull is one of eight patients with impaired vision who have been treated successfully with their own stem cells, in a technique developed by scientists and eye surgeons at the North East England Stem Cell Institute (NESCI).
Russell, who is now 38, had just enjoyed a night out in Newcastle in 1994. On the bus home he overheard a heated argument between two men, which spilled into a fight.
When he intervened to break up the scuffle one of the men began squirting ammonia around the bus. Russell was hit in his right eye, causing massive damage to the cornea stem cells, leaving him with severely impaired vision, a condition known as Limbal Stem Cell Deficiency (LSCD).
LSCD is a painful, blinding disease that requires long-term, costly treatment with frequent clinic visits and intensive hospital admissions. The vision loss due to LSCD makes this disease not only costly, but often requires social support due to the enormous impact on patient’s quality of life. This is further magnified by the fact that LSCD mostly affects young patients.
After 12 years of living in constant pain and with poor vision, and undergoing various treatments with creams and washes, Russell became part of trials of a new treatment for the condition.
Details of the treatment have just been published in the American Journal, Stem Cells.
The team at NESCI took a tiny amount of stem cells from the good eye and grew them in a lab. They were then implanted in the damaged eye, where they then began to function as normal, restoring sight.
The technique avoids the need for drugs to suppress immunity and means there is no chance of the implanted cells being rejected. It is also the first in the world which does not use animal products to help grow the stem cells in the lab.
Russell can now enjoy life to the full again.
The technique can also be used to treat patients whose eyes have been damaged by contact lenses, in industrial accidents involving thermal or chemical injuries, among other diseases.
Dr Francisco Figueiredo, Consultant Eye Surgeon at NESCI team, who co-led the project, said: “Corneal cloudiness has been estimated to cause blindness in eight million people (10 per cent of total blindness) worldwide each year. A large number of ocular surface diseases, both acquired and congenital, share features of partial or complete LSCD.
“Chemical burns to the eye are the most common cause of LSCD. The stem cell treatment option is aimed at total cure of LSCD rather than symptom relief only. This new treatment will alleviate patient suffering and remove the need for long term multiple medications as well as returning the patient to functional and social independence.”
Professor Majlinda Lako, who co-led the project, said: “This study demonstrates that transplantation of cultured corneal stem cells without the use of animal cells or products is a safe and effective method of reconstructing the corneal surface and restoring useful sight in patients with unilateral LSCD.
“This research shows promise to help hundreds of people regain their sight. These exciting results offer a new treatment and hope for people with LSCD.”
Dr Sajjad Ahmad, who developed the Newcastle method for culturing limbal stem cells, said “This study shows that stem cell research conducted in the laboratory can have a major impact on the quality of life of patients with corneal disease. This work has been a team effort involving stem cell researchers and hospital doctors working together effectively.”
Professor Michael Whitaker, Co-Director of NESCI, which is a collaboration between Newcastle and Durham Universities, Newcastle NHS Foundation Trust and other partners, said: “Stem cells from bone marrow have been used successfully for many years to treat cancer and immune disease, but this is the first successful stem cell therapy using stem cells from the eye without animal products to treat disease, an important step towards the clinic.
“Because the early results look so promising, we are thinking hard now about how to bring this treatment rapidly into the clinic as we complete the necessary clinical trials, so that the treatment can be shared with all patients that might benefit.”
A larger study involving 24 new patients is currently underway with funding from the UK’s Medical Research Council.