Optogenetics has been used to control nerve cell activity. Now, a human trial will see if it can help a blind person see again.
FROM MICE TO OUR EYES
Optogenetics has helped researchers observe how the brain works inside animals by making the nerve cells sensitive to light, giving scientists control over nerve activity. Now, promising research may transform the technique into a method of giving sight to the blind.
Research developed by scientist Zhuo-Hua Pan at Wayne State University is being used by a company called RestroSense to develop an operation that will allow previously blind individuals to see again. The company will inject a virus doped with light-sensitive algae DNA into a patient’s eyes, which could provide them with some form of vision.
Ultimately, blind people often are unable to see due to a loss of photoreceptors. To overcome this loss, the company will inject the viruses laden with algae DNA into the center of the eye. The goal is for the virus to hit the topmost layer of cells in the retina, called ganglions. Once they start making the light-sensitive protein, the ganglion cells should fire in response to light.
The trial is being conducted on patients with retinitis pigmentosa, a disease that kills specialized rod-and-cone photoreceptors cells in the eyes, resulting in permanent blindness.
In short, if successful, the treatment should result in the production of a light sensitive protein and send signals to the brain in response to the light. Trials have been shown to work with mice who underwent treatment.
THE FUTURE IN OPTOGENETICS
Scientists hope to generate at least 100,000 light sensitive cells, which should provide a decent level of vision to those undergoing the treatment. However, due to the novel nature of the treatment, the researchers are unaware of how well the patients will see after.
Part of this lies in the limitations of the technique. The algae cells are only sensitive to the color blue, so researchers believe that individuals undergoing treatment will see in monochrome or black and white.
The trial will be carried out by doctors at the Retina Foundation of the Southwest.