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Cell transplant therapy could be a treatment for leading cause of blindness

Posted at 1:33 PM, Feb 15, 2021

CINCINNATI, Ohio — Donuts have a way of pleasing the senses. Chocolate, blueberry, glazed – you can almost taste them just by looking at them. What if you couldn't see the wide selection?

Cheri McDaniel, who started Ms. Cheri's Donuts in 2009, has been losing her eyesight more and more every year.

"People's faces from across the room, if I don't know who you are, I can't see your face," McDaniel said.

She’s one of 11 million Americans slowly losing her eyesight due to macular degeneration.

“Macular degeneration is the leading cause of visual loss among American senior citizens. It affects one out of every three American senior citizens so it’s a pretty big deal,” said Dr. Chris Riemann, a retinal surgeon at Cincinnati Eye Institute.

Dr. Riemann says macular degeneration withers away at the back of the eye. McDaniel has been seeing him since she was diagnosed with the disease in her 40s.

“The UV rays can destroy your eyes and smoking," McDaniel said. "I did smoke I quit like 20 years ago because I still remember Dr. Riemann saying the very first time I went to him that ’if you don’t quit smoking while you’re dying of your lung cancer, you will be blind’. And I was like ‘oh, thank you!’”

McDaniel says her vision loss has gotten far worse in the last five years.

“I can’t tell you the last time I read a book, because I can’t see it, even with my glasses and a magnifying glass.”

McDaniel says she thought she would eventually lose vision completely, especially because her form of the disease – the most common form in the U.S. – has no approved treatment options. Then Dr. Riemann told her about a clinical trial for a cell transplant therapy called OpRegen.

“It is a cell line that we actually inject under the retina of patients with the geographic atrophy to try to replace the cells that are atrophying away,” Dr. Riemann said. “They are ethically sourced human embryonic stem cells that come from discarded in vitro fertilization embryos.”

McDaniel says she was told she would be the 26th person in the world to be a part of the early-phase FDA trial.

She found it nerve-wracking, but says she mostly felt honored to be a part of the new therapy.

“If it’s a chance to see or be blind, you’re kind of up against a wall," McDaniel said. "You jump at that chance – yes, I will do this.”

Three months ago, Dr. Riemann performed the surgery on McDaniel. Now, she says she can pay her bills again without a magnifying glass.

“I was so excited; I mean I was so excited. Just for that little thing – 'Oh my gosh, I can see these numbers.'”

Not only did the cell transplant therapy stop the deterioration of her vision. Her eyesight has actually improved.

Dr. Riemann says there are still many steps left before the therapy gets FDA approval. However, he and McDaniel are holding onto hope.

“There are exciting things that don’t always pan out," Dr. Riemann said. "But I’m hoping this one will.”

“It’s just an amazing opportunity for anyone who can’t see well to get fixed,” McDaniel said.