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Experimental Stem Cell Treatment Restores Blind Man's Sight So Well, He Can Drive

Update Date: May 21, 2013 01:34 PM EDT

An experimental stem cell treatment has restored a man's vision so well that his eyesight is considered strong enough for him to be able to drive.

According to New Scientist, the treatment was administered as part of a trial for Advanced Cell Technology, a Massachusetts-based company that has created the technique. The trial has treated 22 people who suffer from either age-related macular degeneration, a relatively common disorder that causes people to develop a black hole in the middle of their line of sight, and Stargardt's macular dystrophy, a hereditary illness that leads to a person becoming blind prematurely. Both conditions strike the retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells, which remove the debris that accumulates on the retina and provide nutrients and energy to photoreceptors, which catch light and send signals to the brain. RPE cells are considered vital to sight.

The treatment was just supposed test whether the stem cell technique was safe, but it provided boosts to many of the participants' vision ability. One person saw a particularly dramatic boost. Originally, his vision was measured to be 20/400, which is considered to be virtually blind. After the treatment, his vision was measured to be 20/40, which means that he can see.

"There's a guy walking around who was blind, but now can see," says Gary Rabin, the chief executive officer of Advanced Cell Technology, said to New Scientist. "With that sort of vision, you can have a driver's [license]."

The treatment takes human embryonic stem cells and converts them into RPE cells. Then those cells are implanted into the retina of one of the person's eyes.

Human embryonic stem cells are considered to be quite controversial because of the source, though recent research may eliminate many of the hurdles.

According to io9, for many people who are blind and who regain sight, the new ability is more difficult than sighted people would imagine, because the brain needs to not only be able to see an object but to recognize it. That should be less difficult for the participants in the study, though, who were once able to see.

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