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The quest to restore sight at Stanford

Emery Olcott, a retired businessman, is legally blind and struggles to see what’s on his dinner plate. Cocktail parties are his nemesis, he says, as he can’t recognize the faces of people in front of him.

Olcott, 78, has glaucoma, one of the most common causes of blindness, resulting from excessive pressure inside the eye. That can lead to damage of the optic nerve, which is considered irreversible. But physician/scientists have been pushing the envelope to find ways to repair the optic nerve and help preserve or restore vision for people like him.

“I’m losing my vision and I want to do anything I can to keep it. These [doctors] are my lifeline now,” Olcott told me.

When it comes to health, Americans cherish their ability to see above all else – fearing loss of sight more than loss of hearing, speech or memory. “The fear of vision loss, even for people in lesser stages of disease, can be quite dramatic,” said Jeffrey Goldberg, MD, PhD, professor and chair of ophthalmology at Stanford. “So anything we can do to stabilize, better diagnose and hopefully one day restore vision in some of these diseases I think will have an enormous global impact.”

In a newly published story in Stanford Medicine magazine, I describe some of the innovative new approaches being developed at Stanford and elsewhere to help people with serious vision problems, such as macular degeneration, glaucoma and corneal damage.

For instance, one therapy that Goldberg and his colleagues are investigating involves use of a surgical implant to help protect and regrow nerve cells crippled by glaucoma and other optic nerve diseases. The implant, positioned inside the eye, releases a steady flow of growth factors that feed retinal cells in the optic nerve, giving them what Goldberg calls “a booster shot to stay healthy or improve vision.”

Olcott had the experimental implant installed in one eye and says it appears to have stabilized his vision for now. But he’s looking to another treatment developed by Stanford neurologist Andrew Huberman, PhD, which uses visual stimulation to try to revive key cells in the optic nerve. Based on work in the laboratory, Huberman and his colleagues have devised a virtual museum gallery where patients can view celebrated works of art, using virtual reality goggles. But patients first have to give their eyes some exercise in the form of a series of flashing dots, carefully designed to try and stimulate retinal cells back to life.

“You might not be able to take people who are completely blind and make them see,” Huberman said. “But you could imagine taking people who are losing their vision and helping them hold on to what they have. That would be really exciting because a lot of what glaucoma patients fear is losing what little vision they have, like people in the early stage of Alzheimer’s worry about losing their mind.”

The trial is expected to begin this fall, and Olcott is already in line to sign up. “It could be transformative for me,” he said.

Previously: Stanford Medicine magazine reports on the future of visionThousands of queries, added funds fuel pushoff from successful Stanford vision-restoration study and New Stanford center will advance vision research
Image by John Hersey

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