Stem cell treatment could restore vision

New treatment offers hope to chronic corneal disease sufferers

Two patients have undergone treatment as part of a revolutionary stem cell replacement study which could reverse their corneal blindness.

The pioneering approach to the treatment of eye disease has been developed by Scottish scientists and clinicians, and has entered clinical trials.

The research study involves growing stem cells from deceased donors and transplanting them onto the patient’s cornea, the transparent front part of the eye.

Sylvia Paton, from Edinburgh, is the first patient in Scotland to take part in the research study.

She underwent the three-hour procedure 12 weeks ago and hopes it will be able to transform the lives of her own children and those of future generations.

Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon met with Sylvia at the Princess Alexandra Eye Pavilion in Edinburgh.

She said:

“This pioneering new treatment could potentially restore sight and improve the lives of many patients, and it is vital that we continue to invest in innovative projects such as this one.
“Sylvia is a very real example of how corneal blindness can have a dramatic impact and this trial could potentially transform her life.
“If proves to be successful, we could see many more people benefit as a result. Corneal epithelial stem cell transplantation represents one of the first of a new generation of regenerative therapies which we hope will transform medicine over the coming decades."

The treatment is part of a randomised clinical trial and if it proves successful, it could improve the lives of many patients affected by corneal disease and blindness.

The stem cell treatment involves the harvesting of corneal stem cells from deceased adult cornea donors.

The surgery removes the scarred and the damaged part of the cornea before the stem cells are then transplanted into the eyes.

Over the next few months, they should have the ability to halt and or repair the damage to patients’ eyes and restore sight.

Corneal diseases are second only to cataracts as the major cause of blindness and around 20 million people are thought to be affected world-wide.

Dr Ashish Agrawal, Consultant Ophthalmologist, NHS Lothian, who performed the operation, said:

“It is now 12 weeks since the transplant procedure and I am delighted to report that Sylvia is recovering well.
“Her cornea is clear and I hope that it will continue to maintain clarity as she goes into the future. However, this is the first and the major step in the complex visual rehabilitation process and she will require further surgical treatment to restore vision. This study will significantly enhance our understanding of these complex corneal problems and provide us a great opportunity to further help our patients.”

Professor Bal Dhillon, Consultant Ophthalmologist, NHS Lothian, who is principal investigator on the study said the research had the potential to changes scores of lives.

He added:

“Stem cell treatment could bring sight to many people around the world who currently live in darkness.
“Research has found that some people have a genetic disposition to this type of eye condition while others can develop it later in life due to other reasons.  This is an exciting time for stem cell programmes and genetic research.”

Chief Executive of the UK Stem Cell Foundation, Lil Shortland, added:

“I am delighted that by working in collaboration with the Scottish Enterprise and the Chief Scientist Office we have been able to support this very promising clinical trial, which is the first of its kind in Scotland. It is great news for Scotland to be undertaking this cutting edge work and it will bring much-needed hope to so many people affected by this devastating condition.”

Case Study

Sylvia, 50, a grandmother, from Corstorphine, Edinburgh was born with a rare condition called Aniridia, which causes incomplete formation of the iris and loss of vision which usually affects both eyes.

She has no discernible iris, the coloured part of the eye, which means that she has only a large dilated pupil.

Sylvia, a personal assistant, suffers extreme photophobia, is extremely short sighted and has only 10 per cent of the vision of a sighted person.

Her vision is also affected by environmental surroundings, daylight and darkness, space, colours, distance, speed etc and normally uses dark glasses to protect her eyes.

She agreed to take part in the trial in the hope that it would improve her quality of life, but also because it has the potential to change the lives of millions of others and provide more research opportunities.

She and the team will not know how successful the procedure has been for another nine months, but Sylvia is excited about the possible results.

She added:

“I’m so excited about the possibilities of this new procedure.
“It has the potential to save vision, protect and give back vision to people like me. Even if only a little of my vision is restored, it would be better than nothing. Plus it means that the team has gained valuable experience.
“My vision is deteriorating as I get older, much the same as other people’s. However I already only have around 10 per cent of the vision of sighted people.
“Until now there’s really nothing that could be done to combat the effects of this type of blindness. Not only could this treatment in time be beneficial for millions of people who suffer from corneal blindness but could also help my son who also suffers from the same disease.
“For me personally, I have had the opportunity to restore some of the vision I have lost over the years  and this will hopefully not only allow me to have a better quality of life, but will also allow me to extend my ability to work for as much as ten years or even more. That’s an opportunity that should not be taken lightly and an opportunity that I certainly could not afford to miss.”


This is a ground breaking collaborative study which is funded jointly by the UK Stem Cell Foundation and Scottish Enterprise in partnership with the Chief Scientist Office (CSO).

The Chief Scientist Office, part of the Scottish Government Health and Social Care Directorates, supports and promotes high quality research aimed at improving the quality and cost-effectiveness of services offered by NHSScotland and securing lasting improvements to the health of the people of Scotland.

The donor stem cells have been grown by the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service (SNBTS) and the trial is being run by SNBTS together with NHS Lothian and NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde.