A have-a-go hero who was blinded in one eye in a chemical attack 15 years ago has got his sight back after undergoing pioneering stem cell treatment.
Russell Turnbull is one of eight patients with impaired vision who have been treated successfully with their own stem cells, in a technique developed by scientists and eye surgeons at the North East England Stem Cell Institute.
Mr Turnbull, who is now 38, was attacked on his way home following a night out in Newcastle, England in 1994.
On the bus home he overheard a heated argument between two men, which spilled into a fight.
When he intervened to break up the scuffle, one of the men began squirting ammonia around the bus.
Mr Turnbull was hit in his right eye, causing massive damage to the cornea stem cells, leaving him with severely impaired vision, a condition known as Limbal Stem Cell Deficiency (LSCD).
LSCD is a painful, blinding disease that requires long-term, costly treatment with frequent clinic visits and intensive hospital admissions.
The vision loss due to LSCD makes this disease not only costly, but often requires social support due to the enormous impact on the patient’s quality of life.
This is further magnified by the fact that LSCD mostly affects young patients.
Mr Turnbull said about the attack and the impact it had on his life: "I was in agony instantly, my eye was clamped shut,” he said.
“I went home and my mum tried to wash out the chemical and then I went to hospital. I was in hospital for two weeks and eventually I was able to open the eye again.
“It was like looking through scratched Perspex. My eye was sensitive to light, it was constantly watering. I was unable to drive as any bright light would cause me pain.
“The man who attacked me was caught and sentenced to six months in jail, but I later learned that he had served only two months of that sentence.”
After 12 years of living in constant pain and with poor vision, and undergoing various treatments with creams and washes, Mr Turnbull became part of trials of a new treatment for the condition.
The team at North East England Stem Cell Institute took a tiny amount of stem cells from the good eye and grew them in a lab.
They were then implanted in the damaged eye, where they then began to function as normal, restoring sight.
The technique avoids the need for drugs to suppress immunity and means there is no chance of the implanted cells being rejected.
It is also the first in the world that does not use animal products to help grow the stem cells in the lab.
“I had a lot of anger inside me for a long time after the attack. I lost my job because of it and I had always been a keen jet-skier, which I wasn’t able to do,” Mr Turnbull said.
“It ruined my life and I went through a really difficult time. But then this treatment came along, I can’t thank the staff at the RVI (Royal Victoria Infirmary) enough.
“This has transformed my life, my eye is almost as good as it was before the accident. I’m working, I can go jet-skiing again and I also ride horses. I have my life back thanks to the operation.”
The technique can also be used to treat patients whose eyes have been damaged by contact lenses, in industrial accidents involving thermal or chemical injuries, among other diseases.
Dr Francisco Figueiredo, a consultant eye surgeon, led the project with Professor Majlinda Lako and their work has just been published in the American journal, 'Stem Cells'.
“Corneal cloudiness has been estimated to cause blindness in eight million people world wide each year,” Dr Figueiredo said.
“A large number of ocular surface diseases, both acquired and congenital, share features of partial or complete LSCD.
“Chemical burns to the eye are the most common cause of LSCD. The stem cell treatment option is aimed at total cure of LSCD rather than symptom relief only.
“This new treatment will alleviate patient suffering and remove the need for long term multiple medications as well as returning the patient to functional and social independence.”
Professor Lako said: “This study demonstrates that transplantation of cultured corneal stem cells without the use of animal cells or products is a safe and effective method of reconstructing the corneal surface and restoring useful sight in patients with unilateral LSCD.
“This research shows promise to help hundreds of people regain their sight. These exciting results offer a new treatment and hope for people with LSCD.”
Dr Sajjad Ahmad, who developed the Newcastle method for culturing limbal stem cells, said: “This study shows that stem cell research conducted in the laboratory can have a major impact on the quality of life of patients with corneal disease.
“This work has been a team effort involving stem cell researchers and hospital doctors working together effectively.”
Professor Michael Whitaker, co-director of the North East England Stem Cell Institute, said: “Stem cells from bone marrow have been used successfully for many years to treat cancer and immune disease, but this is the first successful stem cell therapy using stem cells from the eye without animal products to treat disease.
“Because the early results look so promising, we are thinking hard now about how to bring this treatment rapidly into the clinic as we complete the necessary clinical trials, so that the treatment can be shared with all patients that might benefit.”
A larger study involving 24 new patients is currently under way with funding from the UK’s Medical Research Council.