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Stem cells reverse blindness caused by burns

LOS ANGELES -- Dozens of people who were blinded or otherwise suffered severe eye damage when they were splashed with caustic chemicals had their sight restored with transplants of their own stem cells -- a stunning success for the burgeoning cell-therapy field, Italian researchers reported Wednesday.

The treatment worked completely in 82 of 107 eyes and partially in 14 others, with benefits lasting up to a decade so far. One man whose eyes were severely damaged more than 60 years ago now has near-normal vision.

"This is a roaring success," said ophthalmologist Dr. Ivan Schwab of the University of California, Davis, who had no role in the study, the longest and largest of its kind.

Stem cell transplants offer hope to the thousands of people worldwide every year who suffer chemical burns on their corneas from heavy-duty cleansers or other substances at work or at home.

The approach would not help people with damage to the optic nerve or macular degeneration, which involves the retina. Nor would it work in people who are blind in both eyes, because doctors need at least some healthy tissue that they can transplant.

In the study, published online by the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers took a small number of stem cells from a patient's healthy eye, multiplied them in the lab and placed them into the burned eye, where they were able to grow new corneal tissue to replace what had been damaged.

Since the stem cells are from their own bodies, the patients do not need to take anti-rejection drugs.

Adult stem cells, which are found around the body, are different from embryonic stem cells, which come from human embryos and have stirred ethical concerns because removing the cells requires destroying the embryos.

The Italian study involved 106 patients treated between 1998 and 2007.

Researchers followed the patients for an average of three years and some as long as a decade. More than three-quarters regained sight after the transplant. An additional 13 percent were considered a partial success. Though their vision improved, they still had some cloudiness in the cornea.

"They were incredibly happy. Some said it was a miracle," said one of the study leaders, Graziella Pellegrini of the University of Modena's Center for Regenerative Medicine in Italy. "It was not a miracle. It was simply a technique."

The study was partly funded by the Italian government.

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