Scientists have used patients’ own stem cells to regrow eye lenses in a trial described as “stunning”.
The work was done in China on twelve children under the age of two, but tests have also begun on older eyes.
Using stem cells from the patients themselves rather than embryonic stem cells means that no embryos are destroyed.
The study, published in the journal Nature, recorded that the babies’ eyesight was restored after stem cells repaired damage that had occurred as a result of congenital cataracts.
The condition means sight is blocked by a cloudy lens and is reportedly the most common cause of blindness in the world.
At present, babies who have the condition – there are around 300 born with it every year in Britain – have artificial lenses inserted, but often still need to wear glasses or contact lenses.
But in this study scientists cut a hole of around 1.5mm in the eyes and used stem cells to form new lenses.
Dr Kang Zhang, one of the researchers involved, said: “We believe that our new approach will result in a paradigm shift in cataract surgery and may offer patients a safer and better treatment option in the future.”
“The children were operated on in China and they continue to be doing very well with normal vision”, he also said.
Prof Robin Ali from the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology, commenting on the work, said it was “stunning”.
“This new approach offers greatly improved prospects for the treatment of paediatric cataracts as it results in regeneration of a normal lens that grows naturally.”
While getting similar results in adults “is likely to be more difficult to achieve”, it could still “have a major impact”.
In January, BBC Panorama reported that pioneering medical treatment using ethical stem cells had dramatically improved the lives of people with Multiple Sclerosis (MS).
Speaking to the BBC, Holly Drewry explained that she was 21 when she was diagnosed with MS. After giving birth, she became increasingly unwell and could not even dress or wash herself.
But after the stem cell treatment, she could move her toes and was later able to walk out of hospital with assistance.
She said: “I got my life and my independence back and the future is bright again in terms of being a mum”.