It really isn’t hard to see why eyes have consumed our fascination throughout human history.
Firstly, of all our organs they are the most visible. Add their transparency, colour and shape and they appear almost magical. The lacy iris looks almost like an entire galaxy has been captured in each glassy orb. Behind the surface, a huge array of different cells are working at lightning speed to capture information from the world around us and send it to our brains. It happens so fast and so automatically that most of us rarely stop to think about how much we rely on sight.
About 360,000 people are currently registered blind in the UK not to mention the millions of people in developing countries who are blind and have no access to treatment of even the most basic kind.
But before you get too disheartened, thanks to the weird and wonderful way science works, there might be some hope on the horizon. Ever since the worlds of space technology and ophthalmology collided back in 2017, something special has been brewing for the treatment of some of the world’s most debilitating eye conditions.
What is Age-Related Macular Degeneration?
One of the most debilitating eye conditions that affect our ageing population is Age-Related Macular Degeneration or AMD. AMD is an incredibly common form of progressive blindness that affects people, you guessed it, as they age. The macula is right at the centre of the retina, it is what helps us read and appreciate the finer details of life. As we age the cells in the macula stop working properly creating black spots in our vision and leading to partial or complete blindness.
Pressure to find new treatments for eye disease is high and rather excitingly some of the biggest breakthroughs have happened in Oxford!
Gene and stem cell therapy
Professor Robert MacLaren is using gene and stem cell therapies to treat a range of retinal diseases. Prof MacLaren’s group recently published the results of a clinical trial where they restored vision in patients who were going blind because they were missing a gene called CHM. By injecting a gene therapy containing the CHM gene they have seen that the eye cells in the patients did take up the replacement gene and had significant improvement in their sight.
Prof MacLaren’s group is also working on an incredible device called an Electronic Retina which is essentially a computer chip containing light-sensitive diodes (a diode is a double-ended piece of material that conducts electricity). The diodes are connected to electrodes that send electrical impulses to the nerves in the retina. This device mimics the natural processing of information by the retinal cells. The Electronic Retina is transplanted surgically into the eye and, so far has been extremely successful in the small number of patients treated.
How has NASA been involved?
In similar bionic human style, AMD can be successfully treated using a new surgical technique that Bobby Qureshi of the London Eye Hospital developed thanks to NASA. After seeing NASA’s trick for fixing the Hubble Space Telescope Bobby copied the technique, making very small cuts in the lens of the eye so that light can be redirected to a healthy part of the Macula.
It is early days for these treatments and although they look promising, the next time you are standing in front of a mirror do me a favour and forget about examining your face for new wrinkles. Instead take a moment to marvel at the intricate, sophisticated machines that are your eyes.
Your eyes are one of your most powerful senses, but they can definitely play tricks on you!
Here is a video Renee made when she visited the BBC Radio studios, exploring optical illusion and dyslexia. What do you know about dyslexia? Why not do a survey of people you know and see how many people have dyslexia? You could ask them what it’s like to have dyslexia and write a newspaper article about what you found. If you send them in, we will publish them in our newsletter!