Gaetan Bally/AP
Embryonic stem cells seen through
a microscope.

China’s Controversial Stem Cell Treatment Helps Blind Girl See

March 05, 2009 05:15 PM
by Rachel Balik
A new stem cell therapy, offered exclusively in China, appears to have given a blind two-year-old the chance to see for the first time.

Foreign Patients Head to China For Chance of Sight

A two-year-old British girl who was born blind and spent most of her life in the hospital now has her eyesight, thanks to a new stem cell treatment offered in China.  The treatment takes stem cells from an umbilical cord and injects them into a patient’s forehead. The girl, Dakota Clarke, is the first British patient to travel to China for the treatment, the Telegraph says.

Clarke has septo-optic dysplasia, also known as De Morsier’s syndrome; a key symptom of the disorder is optic nerve hypoplasia (ONH), an insufficiently developed optic nerve. The condition has also affected her growth, balance and bowel control. In addition to restoring her vision, the stem cell treatment has enabled Clarke to walk with only limited support and to use the toilet by herself for the first time. Her parents say that the therapy, which cost them nearly $60,000, is “worth every single penny.”

China’s announcement last year that it could treat ONH with this therapy was internationally contested, but still drew patients from abroad, NPR reported in March 2008. At the time, 10 patients suffering from optic nerve hypoplasia had been treated in China using the same process undergone by two-year-old Dakota Clarke. The results were positive, enabling patients’ eyes to dilate and see light. The parents of one child told NPR that the doctors in the U.S. had never even heard of the stem cell treatment implemented by the Chinese doctors.

NPR health editor Joe Neel expressed skepticism about the treatment, arguing that there is currently no peer-reviewed scientific evidence that stem cells can migrate to the optic nerve and regrow it. He also had ethical concerns: “It is really not appropriate to be treating children who cannot give assent to the procedure themselves with a therapy that has no basis even in the laboratory for its use.”

Beike Biotechnology, the American company that developed the treatment, chronicles patients’ experience on the Web site China Stem Cell News. The company also recorded a video of Dakota Clarke experiencing vision for the first time and posted it on YouTube. China Stem Cell News serves as a marketing tool for the laboratory. Patients can submit information about their conditions and seek treatment through the Web site.

Background: Stem Cell Research in China

Beike Biotech officially launched its stem cell research and treatment center in November 2007. The laboratory was founded in partnership with China’s Tsinghua University Shenzhen Graduate School and receives funding from the government. In addition to offering treatments using previously conducted research, the center continues to study the potential of stem cells and seek safe methods of reprogramming diseased cells, Medical News Today reported.

Related Topic: Breakthroughs in Stem Cell Research, Other Optic Procedures

Much of the controversy about stem cell research in the United States concerns the ethical issues of using embryos for research. But researchers announced in the March issue of Nature that they are close to finding a safe way to create iPS cells, which function similarly to stem cells but are not derived from human embryos.

Although China is currently the only country to offer the stem cell treatment, other countries have recently made breakthroughs in treating blindness. The BBC shared the story of a 73-year-old who has regained sight with the help of a bionic eye, implanted at Moorfield Eye Hospital in London. The Argus II bionic eye uses a camera that sends images to a receiver on the outside of the eye, which transmits the data to electrodes attached to the man’s retina.

Reference Link: Beike Biotech and septo-optic dysplasia

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke offers information on Dakota Clarke’s condition, septo-optic dysplasia (SOD).

Beike Biotech is the company behind the laboratory facility in China and development of the new treatment. The Web site offers information about the company, a list of treatable conditions, press releases, news and information about patients.

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines