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UK Makes Gene Therapy Breakthrough for Blindness

by Bryant Jordan on March 31, 2014

BlindnessThe Department of Veterans Affairs says it currently has more than 150,000 patients who are legally blind because of age-related illnesses, and the number will grow considerably in coming years as Korean and Vietnam war vets continue to hit their 70s and beyond.

But some breakthrough research out of Great Britain could change all that.

At Oxford Eye Hospital the vision of six male patients with a degenerative eye disease was improved after doctors inserted a healthy copy of a defective gene into an engineered virus that entered the retina and actually replaced the sick gene.

Dr. Robert MacLaren of the University of Oxford and a consultant surgeon at the eye hospital said some vision was restored even for two men whose condition was advanced.

“In truth, we did not expect to see such dramatic improvements in visual acuity and so we contacted both patients’ home opticians to get current and historical data on their vision in former years, long before the gene therapy trial started,” MacLaren said in a university news release. “These readings confirmed exactly what we had seen in our study and provided an independent verification.”

In the test, the men were treated for choroideremia, which affects about one in every 50,000 people, Oxford University said in a news release. But MacLaren said in the university release that the science will extend to other conditions.

“This has huge implications for anyone with a genetic retinal disease such as age-related macular degeneration or retinitis pigmentosa, because it has for the first time shown that gene therapy can be applied safely before the onset of vision loss,” he said.

Total VA funding for its services for blind and vision impaired vets has grown from $94 million in 2007 to $142 million last year, according to Mark Cornell, national president for the Blind Veterans Association. Cornell, who testified earlier this month before Congress, pointed out that in addition to the 157,000 legally blind veterans, the VA estimates there are about 1.1 million “low vision impaired” veterans – that is, with 20/70 vision or worse.

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