A fight against blindness

October 20, 2016
A fight against blindness
Elaine Cain is experiencing improved vision as a participant in a novel clinical trial using stem cells to treat an eye condition called retinitis pigmentosa.

When Elaine Cain and her husband Al moved to Orange County from Michigan five years ago, their goal was to be close to family. They had no idea the move would also bring them hope for Elaine’s vision for the first time.

Cain has been losing vision since age 32, when she was diagnosed with Usher syndrome, a congenital condition that causes both hearing loss and retinitis pigmentosa (RP), the degeneration of retinal cells in the eye. Cain, now 70, first began losing peripheral vision as the rods — the cells responsible for vision in dim light — were affected, a common pattern in retinitis pigmentosa patients.

Then she lost some of her color perception as the cones degenerated, until her vision became limited to a tunnel of less vibrant images.

Dr. Baruch Kuppermann, chief of retina services at UC Irvine Health Gavin Herbert Eye Institute and one of the top-ranked retinal specialists in his field, enrolled Cain in a clinical trial that uses progenitor retinal cells injected into the eye. This first-of-its-kind stem cell-based treatment for retinitis pigmentosa, developed by UC Irvine Health ophthalmologists Dr. Henry Klassen, Dr. Jing Yang and colleagues, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration for clinical trial last year.

“This new approach to treatment offers the chance of really improving the quality of vision and life for people with RP, and it is exciting to be involved in this innovative project, especially since so many of the patients are noticing a difference,” Kuppermann said.

The Phase 1 and 2 clinical trial has undergone four FDA reviews, and researchers with the UC Irvine Sue & Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center have reported that the treatment is safe and well-tolerated by the first group of patients.

Within weeks after treatment in her left eye, Cain began regaining peripheral vision, which has continued to improve.

“When I leave my daughter’s house at dusk, now I can find my own way to the car,” Cain said, still a little amazed. It’s not known exactly how much of her vision will return, but she’s eager for the clinical trial to end so that she can get an injection in her other eye, to gain a bigger perspective on her new world.

Learn more about UC Irvine Health’s innovative eye care services at ucirvinehealth.org/eyecare.

— UC Irvine Health Marketing & Communications
Featured in UC Irvine Health Live Well Magazine Fall 2016