New research being conducted by an international team of researchers at the University of Pittsburgh has begun a campaign to transplant the human eye and restore vision.- MDA

By Adam Smeltz

An international team of researchers based at the University of Pittsburgh has begun a once-unthinkable campaign to transplant the human eye and restore sight for tens of millions of people.

Though they won’t guarantee success, doctors say they could spark a global revolution in eye care and deliver hope to victims of glaucoma, macular degeneration and other permanent vision loss — even those blind since birth. Clinical trials could start in a decade under a best-case scenario, although the group will need millions of dollars that it has not secured.

“We believe it’s an extremely audacious goal,” said Dr. Vijay Gorantla, a co-principal investigator and founder of the Audacious Restorative Goals in Ocular Sciences Consortium that spans 13 institutions from Paris to San Diego.

Still, he said, “I believe we will be successful. It’s just a matter of time.”

About 20 percent of blindness is neither preventable nor curable, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. Doctors have refined laser surgery and other targeted procedures to ease a range of vision problems, but an eyeball transplant has remained elusive.

Historical medical records show the sensitive organ has confounded doctors since the mid-1800s, when early transplant attempts fell short.

Doctors tried several hundred more since then, in animals and people, Gorantla found in his review of the records. Each effort appears to have failed.

Researchers believe that’s because their predecessors did not have a complete handle on the science involved, including the body’s tendency to reject transplanted organs without help from immune-suppressing drugs.


An eye is more complicated than other transplants because of the mysterious optic nerve, a connection behind the eyeball that ties it into the body. Unlike other tissue, the optic nerve typically does not regenerate itself once it’s damaged, leaving researchers at a loss for how to plug a transplanted eye into a recipient’s brain.

“This was never technically possible. The problem is if you take the eye of a donor and put it into a recipient, those nerve fibers from the donor are not going to reconnect,” said Larry Benowitz, a Harvard University Medical School professor and contributor to the transplant project……….

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