THE BLOG

Blindness vs. California Stem Cell Program: Disease-a-Week Challenge #6

06/30/2015 03:13 pm ET | Updated Jun 28, 2016

When I was ten I fell on a bamboo stick, which penetrated my right eye. The doctor taped a patch over it and said that was all he could do, we would just have to wait and see. What did that mean? Losing one eye did not sound too bad, like a pirate in the movies, but what if I lost the other one too? To no longer read comic books, or watch expressions change on a person's face, or see the colors of the sky? I experimented with being blind, blindfolding myself with tied-together gym socks, stumbling around the room.

In time I recovered partial vision (20/400), meaning I could see at twenty feet what others see at 400. With corrective lenses, all is well--but I will never take vision for granted again.

Do you know the Saturday Night Live comedian WillForte?

The humorist was friends with another standup comedian, Dennis Rickman, Ph.D.. Rickman's day job was in medical research: trying to use stem cells to defeat blindness. Forte helped Rickman raise $10,000 to start a program called SCIfEyes (Stem Cell Initiative for Eyes) at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

I spoke to Dr. Rickman and his wife, Dr. Catherine Bowes Rickman, a recognized authority on Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD), the most common form of adult blindness in Western society.

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Dennis Rickman advocated the ethical use of both adult and embryonic stem cells for scientific research, and had a very good reason for doing so

In 1995, Dennis Rickman had been diagnosed with leukemia

After a two-year search, a young woman in Germany was found with bone marrow like Rickman's; she shared her stem cells with him.

This gave him ten years of additional life. Dr. Rickman used those years to fight to save the vision of others, even as he was losing his own...

He knew that eye disease attacks the retina, the inner lining at the back of the eyeball, which turns light into vision. Could stem cells restore the damaged retina?

"I'm not naïve enough to think that it will be done in the next few years," he said, "(but) when I'm not able to do this work anymore, there will be someone else carrying it on."

On February 21, 2010, Dr. Rickman passed away.

"He had the vision, but not the funding," said Catherine Bowes Rickman.

What a shame! To have a stem cell idea which might restore sight to the blind, but not be able to carry it forward--for lack of a few lousy bucks? I applaud Will Forte for helping raise ten thousand dollars to start the program--but could not his home state provide for the research?

Such funding shortfalls are exactly the problem the California stem cell program was set up to solve: to connect stem cell scientists with the funding they need to fight disease.

Unfortunately, California money cannot pay for North Carolina research. If that state had a collaborative research agreement with us, 'our" scientists (funded by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, CIRM) could work with theirs. We would pay our portion, they would pay theirs, more bang for the research buck. But that link has not yet been made.

However! Four scientist friends of the Rickmans' are Mark Humayun, David Hinton and Dennis Clegg, all of the University of Southern California, and Peter Coffee from University College, London, UK. They recently received a disease team grant from the California stem cell program. Because CIRM and the UK have a collaborative agreement, they can work together, and Coffee is bringing his own funding.

The problem they are taking on is huge. As they state in their public write-up for the CIRM grant:
"...by 2020, over 450,000Californians will suffer...vision loss or blindness due to AMD, the most common cause of (eye disease) in the elderly. Part of the retina, called the macula ...(lets) people read, visualize faces, and drive... The disease initially causes damage in central vision, (leading to) legal blindness."

"Central vision"? : If you have AMD, the center part of your field of vision will be a large black spot, with only a fringe of vision around the edges.

"Put a thumb in front of your eye," said Dr. Humayun when I interviewed him, "now imagine trying to deal with that all day long."

What keeps a person's retina healthy?

"A layer of cells at the back of the eye called the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) provides support, protection, and nutrition to the retina," he said.

If those support cells go bad, so does the retina. But the team thinks there may be a way to prevent the deterioration, or even reverse it.

With embryonic stem cells, they hope to nurture the cells which nourish the retina.

Will it work? Maybe yes, maybe no. But thanks to the California stem cell program, the scientists will have the funding (almost $19 million) to find out.

This column is dedicated to the memory of Dennis Rickman. He and his wife Catherine's efforts have advanced the cause of vision research. May she continue to find funding: she and every scientist who struggles to defeat chronic disease.

The fight for sight must go on.

Don C. Reed is the author of the forthcoming book, STEM CELL BATTLES: Proposition 71 and Beyond: How Ordinary People Can Fight Back Against the Crushing Burden of Chronic Disease, from World Scientific Publishing.