Surgeons focus on stem cell transplants to help save sight of acid attack victims

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Eye doctors are fast-tracking efforts to improve stem cell transplants to save the sight of people blinded in London’s acid attack epidemic, the Standard can reveal.

Research at The Royal Free Hospital aims to boost success rates, particularly where cells are taken from deceased donors — at present, three-quarters of such transplants fail. 

Corneal stem cell transplants have been used for some time on acid victims, including model Katie Piper.

But they are difficult and risky to perform, with doctors hampered by a shortage of donated eyes.

They are most successful when one eye is damaged and cells can be transplanted from the healthy eye. This works in about seven out of 10 cases.

The success rate is about 25 per cent when both eyes are damaged and cells are harvested from the eye of a deceased donor.

Research: consultant Alex Shortt, right, and student Harley Buck at The Royal Free Hospital

Consultant ophthalmic surgeon Alex Shortt, who is carrying out the research at the Royal Free’s institute of immunity and transplantation in Hampstead, said the aim was a success rate of 95 per cent. The work is being funded by the Wellcome Trust and Moorfields Eye Charity.

A total of 454 acid attacks were reported to the Metropolitan police last year, almost three times the number in 2014. Mr Shortt said: “The last six to 12 months has seen demand for these treatments rise hugely.”

He said the challenge was to remove scar tissue without creating a new scar as the eye healed. A sample of healthy corneal stem cells are grown in the laboratory to form a sheet, which is attached to the surface of the damaged eye to enable the cornea to regenerate. 

“The success rate is about 68 per cent. It fails in three out of 10 people. They regrow a scar and they go blind again,” Mr Shortt added.

“We are trying to move to the point where we can use donor cells and prevent the body from rejecting them. Then we can treat patients more cheaply, and have a ‘bank’ of cells ready to go as soon as we see a severe injury.”

Next week NHS rationing body NICE is due to decide whether to approve an £80,000 Italian stem cell treatment, Holoclar, that works for seven in 10 patients. However, it is only effective where cells can be taken from the patient’s undamaged eye.

NICE is likely to require patients to undergo a cheaper treatment first.

Medics are also appealing for more people to donate their corneas after death. NHS Blood and Transplant said more than one in 10 donors place restrictions on the use of their eyes, the most for any organ.

About 70 corneas a week are needed but 50 are donated. Hundreds of corneas are imported from the US and Europe.

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