June 16, 2014 4:00 pm

Researchers hope growing new eye cells can restore lost vision

WATCH: One researcher is trying to grow new eye cells in an attempt to cure his own fading vision. Crystal Goomansingh reports.

TORONTO- Peering into a microscope in the Krembil Discovery Tower at Toronto Western Hospital, Stuart Matan-Lithwick is hopeful.

The 36-year-old PhD student is one of the team members in Dr. Valerie Wallace’s laboratory growing and transplanting healthy cells into retinas in an effort to see if regenerative medicine can be used to restore lost vision.

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“In the Wallace lab, we’re actually focused on a project  hopefully to rebuild the retina. RP (Retinitis Pigmentosa) and a whole variety of other blindness disorders, take place and arise due to the death of these cells in the retina that absorb light,” said Matan-Lithwick.

The PhD student is seated between rows of long counters covered with beakers and microscopes as he explains the importance of the research.

“I was finishing my Master’s at U of T and I visited an optometrist to get more information about being an optometrist. So during that visit, at the end of the time I was there, she actually did a practise consultation on me, and while I was sitting in the chair, she diagnosed me with RP.”

Retinitis Pigmentosa leads to a progressive loss of vision as light sensing cells in the retina die. It’s a genetic condition but many individuals diagnosed do not have a family history.

Symptoms generally begin to appear during young adulthood, according to the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB). The two most common symptoms of RP are night blindness and the loss of side vision.

“I have blind spots that go across my entire visual field. I see flashes across my visual field all the time,” said Matan-Lithwick. “Right now there is no treatment for my disorder. So at some point, this kind of a technique, if it would be possible to use, could help me.”

Wallace can’t put a timeline to the work being done in her lab or if it will ever be tested in humans. They are in the proof of concept stage right now when they try to demonstrate the feasibility of their idea.

“We’re looking at trying to use cell replacement, so transplanting healthy cells into those retinas, to see if we can restore vision,” Wallace said.

She and her team are working on three specific projects in the Krembil Discovery Tower. All have life changing potential, if the theories prove true.

“We know a lot about these disease. We have an amazing array of tools and techniques. We have new technology from other fields that we can apply to this problema dn we’re actually talking about transplanting cells to a retina. That I think is amazing progress in 20 years.” said Dr. Wallace.

 

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