Using the eye’s own healing power to stop condition that impairs vision

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Patients can see it coming; cloudy, foggy vision creeps in over time. The traditional treatment is a corneal transplant, but a local doctor has pioneered an alternative that harnesses the eye’s natural healing power.

It’s the most common reason patients undergo corneal transplant.  Fuchs’ Endothelial Dystrophy affects about four percent of Americans. The pumping cells in the inner lining of the cornea fail.

“When the cells stop working the cornea becomes water logged and vision becomes blurry,” says Dr Kathryn Colby, an ophthalmologist with the University of Chicago Medicine. “Like looking through the door of a shower after you’ve taken a hot shower.”

It’s something Eric Thorp has experienced twice.

“Your world gets smaller and darker both literally and emotionally,” says Thorp.  “There were clouds in my eyes and fogginess and inability to focus. I had no idea what it was.”

In 2002, he underwent a partial thickness transplant. Dr Colby removed the inner layer where the pumping cells are found — called the Descemet’s Membrane -- and replaced it with donor tissue.

“It took almost a year for my vision to come back to clarity,” Thorp says.

And to prevent his body from rejecting the donor tissue he takes daily topical steroids in the form of drops that can boost the pressure in the eye, increasing the risk for glaucoma.

“For the rest of my life I have to take those drops every day,” he says.

Three years ago the same symptoms appeared in his other eye. But this time around Dr Colby offered him a new treatment.  One she was still developing that would possibly avoid the use of donor tissue.

“A number of years ago there were lines of evidence that suggested to me that in this disease Fuchs’ dystrophy, that a person’s own cells might be capable of self-rejuvenation,” Dr Colby says.  “I removed just the center of those pumping cells that were bad and low and behold about a month later his own cells had grown over to cover that area, clearing his cornea, getting rid of the water and they are his own cells.”

“Within a month of that surgery I had 20/20 vision and that’s over three years now,” Thorp says.

If the procedure fails to rejuvenate healthy cells, patients can go on to have a more traditional transplant. But about 75 percent of the patients in Dr Colby’s study cleared and had their vision restored.

You can learn more about the procedure being offered at University of Chicago Medicine by following these links.