Phil Durst had an accident at work in 2017 when a chemical from a commercial dishwasher got in his eye. He says it was the worst pain he had ever experienced in his life.
In his left eye, the signs of the serious accident that took his sight are clearly visible. Another consequence was that he could not tolerate light and experienced four to five headaches a day.
He later underwent an experimental procedure aimed at treating severe injuries in one eye with embryonic, or stem, cells from the other eye.
“From complete blindness with terrible headaches that made me think I couldn’t live anymore, my sight came to a point where I could drive the car and get out of the dark,” he says as tears fall.
The 51-year-old from Homewood, Alabama, was one of four patients who underwent stem cell transplants as part of the first study in the United States to test this treatment method, which could one day help thousands of people.
Although additional treatment is needed in some cases, experts say stem cell transplants offer hope for people with few or no other options. The results of the early-stage research were published Friday in the journal Science Advances, while a larger study continues.
This procedure treats “limbal cell deficiency,” a corneal disorder that can occur after chemical burns and other eye injuries.
Patients without limbal cells, which are essential for renewing and maintaining the outermost layer of the cornea, cannot undergo corneal transplants that are commonly used to improve vision.
Scientist Ula Jurkunas, an eye doctor at the “Mass Eye and Ear” hospital in Boston, is the main researcher of the study. Under the process, she says, a small sample of stem or embryonic cells is taken from a healthy eye and grown in a laboratory at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.
A few weeks later, they are transplanted into the damaged eye. Mr. Durst was the first patient to undergo the procedure.
“The main thing is that we are using the patient’s own tissue,” said Dr. Jurkunas, not donor tissue that can be rejected by the body.
She says this method is better than the procedure that requires taking a very large portion of embryonic cells from a healthy eye to use in a damaged eye, which risks damaging the healthy eye.
Mr. Durst injured both eyes in the accident. His eyesight was so poor that his wife and son helped him move. But the right eye was less damaged and could provide the stem cells to carry out the transplant procedure.
Scientist Jurkunas, who is also affiliated with Harvard Medical School, said Mr. Durst’s 2018 operation marked the culmination of nearly two decades of research.
The corneal layer of the eye healed in all patients in the study. Mr. Durst and another patient underwent artificial cornea transplants. Two patients said their vision improved significantly just from the stem cell transplant. A fifth patient did not undergo the procedure because his embryonic cells were unable to expand properly.
Mr. Durst said that the vision in the right eye is almost perfect, but in the left eye it is blurry. He will undergo another procedure in September on his left eye.