Patients regain sight with new stem cell therapy after being blinded by chemical burns.

Patients regain sight with new stem cell therapy after being blinded by chemical burns.

Restoring Sight: Stem Cell Therapy Offers Hope for Eye Injuries


Imagine experiencing excruciating pain like never before, clawing at your face in desperation. This was the reality for Phillip Durst, a 51-year-old from Birmingham, Alabama, whose sight was tragically taken away during an accident involving an industrial dishwasher. However, thanks to an experimental stem cell therapy, Durst has regained some of his vision and is hopeful for the future.

The Catastrophic Eye Injury

Durst was working near an industrial dishwasher when it malfunctioned, causing caustic chemicals to spray into his eyes. The intense pain he experienced is beyond words. Durst described it as the most intense and surreal experience of his life, surpassing any broken bones or stitches he had previously endured.

The chemicals severely burned Durst’s eyes, leading to complete blindness. At first, it seemed impossible for him to regain his sight. The injury had damaged his corneas, preventing healthy tissue regeneration.

Stem Cells Offer a Glimmer of Hope

In a groundbreaking procedure outlined in the journal Science Advances, researchers successfully used stem cells to restore vision in patients with eye injuries similar to Durst’s. Lead researcher Dr. Ula Jurkunas from Mass Eye and Ear in Boston explained that corneas normally consist of transparent structures with stem cells located in the periphery. However, when these stem cells are depleted or destroyed due to chemical injury, the cornea loses its ability to remain clear.

Without effective treatment, blood vessels and the conjunctiva begin growing into the cornea, leading to blindness. Traditional corneal transplant techniques aren’t suitable for this type of injury as they carry a higher risk of rejection. Thus, researchers sought a different approach.

The Transplant Procedure

In Phillip Durst’s case, surgeons took a biopsy from his healthier eye, which still had some intact stem cells, and sent it to a stem cell laboratory. After two to three weeks, the lab grew new tissue from Durst’s own stem cells. Surgeons removed the damaged tissue from his injured eye and replaced it with the lab-grown transplant, measuring about three-fourths of an inch.

The new cells seamlessly integrated into Durst’s eye, providing a source of new stem cells for his damaged cornea. This personalized approach significantly reduced the risk of rejection and maximized the chances of success. The surgery, performed a year after the accident, restored Durst’s vision to some extent.

The Path to Recovery

Phillip Durst now describes his vision as if swimming in a bay, compared to a pool. Although his sight remains cloudy, he can perceive light and distinguish images. It’s a tremendous improvement given the severity of his injury and the initial fear of lifelong blindness.

Furthermore, Durst is not alone in his recovery journey. The study reported successful transplants in four patients, with notable improvements in vision for each individual. One patient experienced a complete resolution of symptoms, while another regained the ability to see broad hand movements.

The Promise of Stem Cell Therapy

Due to the use of patients’ own stem cells, this revolutionary therapy offers distinct advantages, including a reduced risk of rejection. As Dr. Jurkunas explained, customized treatments utilizing patients’ unique cell growth patterns may lead to better outcomes. However, while stem cell therapy shows incredible potential for treating corneal injuries, it is not without challenges.

Future Considerations and Potential Expansion

The use of individually cultured stem cells makes this therapy highly specialized, leading to substantial costs. Dr. Jurkunas refers to it as a “boutique type of treatment.” Before it can be widely adopted, the procedure must undergo FDA approval, and the economic viability needs careful evaluation.

In terms of accessibility, Dr. Anat Galor from the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine suggests a possible partnership between academic centers and biotech firms to enable widespread implementation. This collaborative approach would allow various centers across the country to perform the procedure, facilitating patient access to this groundbreaking treatment.

Broadening the Scope

While the current technique is restricted to corneal issues, the advancements made through this procedure hold promise for other eye injuries and conditions. Eye-related stem cell therapies are still in their early stages, lacking FDA-approved options. The success of corneal cell therapy could serve as an essential stepping stone towards developing treatments for retinal and other ocular conditions.

Patient Flocks to Embrace Hope

Despite the procedure’s current limitations, many patients are seeking this innovative treatment. People from all over the United States, like Phillip Durst, are traveling to Boston, where Dr. Jurkunas and her team are providing their expertise. The positive impact this treatment has had on patients’ lives is undeniable and fuels hope for future advancements in ocular medicine.


Phillip Durst’s story showcases the incredible potential of stem cell therapy in restoring vision to those who have suffered eye injuries. With individualized treatment plans that utilize patients’ own stem cells, the risk of rejection is significantly minimized. The success of corneal cell therapy pioneers a new frontier in ocular medicine, offering hope to so many whose sight has been devastated by accidents and injuries. As researchers continue to refine the procedure, we may soon witness a world where blindness caused by corneal damage is no longer a permanent affliction.