Dad's sight restored 25 years after brutal acid attack
World / 9 September 2019, 12:57pm / SOPHIE BORLAND HEALTH EDITOR
London - A father has had his sight restored after 25 years following pioneering stem cell treatment on the NHS.
James O’Brien was blinded in his right eye when he was just 18 after acid was thrown in his face in a random attack.
Now 44, he has become the first patient on the NHS to undergo a procedure that used stem cells from his healthy left eye.
The operation has paved the way for hundreds of other acid victims to have their sight restored.
Doctors at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London, who have spent 20 years developing the technique, hope to operate on one patient a month. Mr O’Brien, who is married with a six-year-old daughter and son, four, said: "Being able to see with both eyes – it’s a small thing that means the world. Basically I went from near-blindness in that eye to being able to see everything."
"It is like getting full sight back, I can see so much more."
"Before I couldn’t even see the ophthalmic chart, the chart with all the letters on, now I can see the third line down and it’s going to get much better.
"It’s a massive bonus to be able to see out of both eyes, to see my children out of my right eye, I’d never seen them out of that eye before."
The procedure will be shown on BBC1’s regional show Inside Out London at 7.30pm tonight and on iPlayer from Tuesday.
Mr O’Brien, a project manager who lives in Rotherhithe, south-east London with his wife Lisa, 40, a communications manager, had the first stage of the treatment early last year.
Stem cells are basic cells that can become almost any type of cell in the body. They provide new cells for the body as it grows, and replace specialised ones that are damaged or lost.
The procedure involved removing stem cells from the dad-of-two’s healthy left eye, which were then grown for months in a lab in Modena, Italy. This is where the firm with the NHS contract and expertise to perform this stage of the treatment is based.
Surgeons at Moorfields then cut the scar tissue from Mr O’Brien’s right eye and replaced it with the stem cells from his left, which by this time had been sent back from Italy.
They then waited about a year for the tissue in the right eye to settle down before inserting a cornea – which plays a key role in vision and focuses light – from a deceased donor.
Mr O’Brien said: "We were playing a game around the dining room table and [the children] were holding up fingers and I was telling them how many with my right eye. They were squealing with delight."
"When I’m cycling I can just glance over my shoulder and see what traffic is behind me."
"It’s also given me greater comfort. The surface of the eye was heavily scarred but they’ve smoothed that out and the eye is much healthier and more comfortable. It’s slightly blurred because I still have stitches in, but once those come out at the end of this year I should get even better vision."
Sajjad Ahmad, the consultant ophthalmic surgeon who performed the procedure said: "James – in a crude sort of way – kindly accepted to be the guinea pig for this treatment. Because of what he’s done, it will now enable us to offer it to everyone who needs it."
"This is going to have a huge impact. A lot of these patients are young men so it affects their work, their lives, those around them. It’s not just the vision that drops, it’s the pain."
Mr Ahmad said he now sees several acid attack victims every week. He hopes to develop the procedure for patients blinded in both eyes by acid or through degenerative sight loss conditions.
The operation for one eye costs the NHS £92 000, including sending the cells to Italy.
Nice, the NHS’s rationing body, and NHS England, which holds the purse strings, have approved the treatment for all eligible patients.