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Research brings hope to those with vision loss

| Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012, 9:32 p.m.
Dr. Robert Hendricks, director of  the Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences Research Center at UPMC Presbyterian on Friday September 21, 2012. “There is a lot of exciting things going on in our research, and lot of it is related to regenerative medicine. In the past, once a tissue was damaged, it was assumed the game was over. That’s no longer the case,” said Hendricks.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Dr. Robert Hendricks, director of the Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences Research Center at UPMC Presbyterian on Friday September 21, 2012. “There is a lot of exciting things going on in our research, and lot of it is related to regenerative medicine. In the past, once a tissue was damaged, it was assumed the game was over. That’s no longer the case,” said Hendricks. Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review

Every so often, Carnegie Mellon University scientist Shawn Kelly gets a phone call from someone who's blind and wants to know about the bionic retina he's developing.

“It reminds me of what all this work is about,” said Kelly, 38, who has spent 16 years developing a prosthetic electronic retina that could help people whose eyes are damaged by macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa.

“It is still fairly experimental. We've had early, short-term trials and are hoping to start clinical trials within two years,” said Kelly, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology- trained engineer who grew up in Whitehall.

Kelly's research is just one cutting-edge eye project being done in Pittsburgh, where Saturday's Vision Walk in the South Side helped raise funds and bring attention to diseases of the eye.

At the UPMC Eye Center, much of the research focuses on regenerative medicine, a field that started with restoration of heart tissue in the 1990s and has since included research into the use of stem cell therapy in vision restoration.

“In the past, once a tissue was damaged, it was assumed the game was over. That's no longer the case,” said Robert Hendricks, director of research, program director and vice chair of research in the department of ophthalmology at the University of Pittsburgh.

The Louis J. Fox Center for Vision Restoration of UPMC and the University of Pittsburgh is studying what can be done to treat the most common diseases associated with vision loss, including macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy and corneal scarring.

The retina is a light sensitive layer in the back of the eye. Its light-sensitive cells send signals to the brain through the optic nerve, which enables people to see. The retina can pull away from the back of the eye or develop tears or scarring, which can lead to blindness.

Kelly's bionic eye relies on transmission of hundreds of electric currents over a cellophane-thin surface on a chip a tenth of an inch in diameter. It would replace the need for a risky retina transplant, which damages nerves.

While Kelly's prosthetic retina would work for people whose retinal nerves are still intact, it would not work for people suffering from chronic degenerative conditions such as glaucoma and herpes keratitis, a condition that leads to an infection and inflammation of the cornea.

“The only real recourse for herpes keratitis is to do a corneal transplant,” Hendricks said. Researchers at Pitt are isolating stem cells in hopes they could be used to treat patients with corneal disease, eliminating the need for a transplant. Researchers at Pitt and UPMC also are researching the use of beta blockers for conditions such as glaucoma.

“There is no cure for glaucoma, a progressive disease caused by pressure,” Hendricks said.

Researchers are experimenting with using beta blockers to block swelling and provide an escape route for fluid in glaucoma patients.

Today's research gives hope to visually impaired people, said Elaine Welch, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Association for the Blind, which runs 28 agencies across the state and assists the visually impaired with employment and independent living.

“This gives hope to a lot of people. We'll probably always have blindness, But a lot of this research is very promising,” she said.

Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or at rwills@tribweb.com.

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