Thanks to the use of human embryonic stems cells, or hESCs, it’s now literally possible to say “I was blind, but now I see” — a phrase which was previously consigned to the world of metaphors, gospel hymn lyrics, and 80s movies punch lines.
As reported last week in the New Scientist, a blind man burdened by retinal cell degeneration is now legally able to drive, after undergoing treatment using hESCs and recovering his vision.
Advanced Cell Technology, based in Marlborough, Massachusetts, is behind the research program, which began in 2011. Gary Rabin, the CEO, put the results simply: “There’s a guy walking around who was blind, but now can see. With that sort of vision, you can have a driver’s license.”
The main aim of the research — which involves turning hESCs into fresh retinal pigment epithelial cells, then transplanting them into participants’ eyes — is to test the safety of using hESCs in various treatment. But researchers noted that “participants have reported improvements in their sight.” In other words, this scientific breakthrough was an accident (adding its name to a long, prestigious line of them).
This breakthrough comes four years after President Obama signed an Executive Order overturning the federal funding ban for embryonic stem cell research, a President Bush-era policy. In 2009, President Obama said that overturning the research ban was part of a larger effort to “… ensure that in this new Administration, we base our public policies on the soundest science; that we appoint scientific advisors based on their credentials and experience, not their politics or ideology; and that we are open and honest with the American people about the science behind our decisions.”
Using hESCs isn’t without controversy. Currently, in order to extract stem cells, the human embryo must be destroyed; those that believe that human life begins at conception are opposed to the use of hESCs for this reason. The back-and-forth between these pro-life activists and pro-hESC research is interesting but outside the purview of this article; suffice it to say that this breakthrough won’t be a game-changer for the debate. Those who were previously against using hESCs are likely to stay that way on moral grounds, while supporters will continue to espouse belief in the promise of this work for the betterment of human life around the world.
This breakthrough is one of the first for hESC research. Expert scientists and researchers are cautiously optimistic about the future of stem cell research, and they hope that one day it will lead to the cure of Alzheimer’s, paralysis — even cancer. If nothing else, the success of current hESC research should spurn future work in the area.
For now, though, it’s enough that a man who previously was blind can now drive a car. Perhaps more importantly, he can catch the sunset, see the smile on the face of a loved one, and watch his children and grandchildren grow old. He, his family, and society all have stem-cell research to thank for this momentous event.