In March 2020, a team of scientists used the CRISPR gene editing tool to alter the gene for inherited blindness in somebody’s eye. The experiment was a proof-of-concept test run showing the possibilities for in vivo genetic modification. Now, another team of scientists has thought of a different way to use genetic engineering to combat blindness. And they may have already helped one man with a loss of vision experience a very limited form of sight.
Science News reported the new attempt to combat vision loss via genetic engineering. Unlike the team from March 2020, this one, consisting of researchers from institutions in France and Switzerland, utilized a combination of gene therapy and exogenous optical stimuli—goggles that strobed amber light—to restore partial vision to their participant.
The 58-year-old man who participated in the “optogenetic therapy” has a genetic disease called retinitis pigmentosa; a rare degenerative eye disease that causes severe vision impairment. Pigmentosa causes the light-gathering cells in a person’s retinas to die, hence the loss of vision.
To restore some sense of vision, the researchers, who outlined their experiment in the journal Nature Medicine, used a virus. They specifically took an adenovirus of sorts and used it to insert the genetic code for building light-sensitive bacterial proteins into certain cells in the man’s eyes. (The scientists took the proteins—a.k.a. channelrhodopsins—from algae.) These bacterial proteins, in turn, were able to trigger nerve impulses to the brain upon receiving flashes of amber light coming the goggles.
As for the results? In the video up top, we see the researchers’ participant as he uses the “light-stimulating” goggles to locate items on a table in front of him. And it’s clear that it’s only after the goggles are on that he’s able to pinpoint objects. In fact, he’s able to reach out and touch them on the first try.
“The fact we can restore some vision to a blind patient means we can open a new chapter in ophthalmology” study co-author, Botond Roska, says in the video immediately above. “From now on, we can refine this technology to get better and better vision for blind patients,” the researcher adds.
Looking forward, the researchers will need to overcome several challenges. One neuroscientist, for example, told Science News that the researchers need to use the goggles on participants prior to the gene therapy, as well as after; she argues it may just be the flashing amber light that’s restored some vision. If the genetic modifications are indeed the impetus for the partial vision, however, that could be big. One neurobiologist even told Nature that it appears the genetic modifications are permanent. Which means, one day, blindness may not be.