London: A ray of hope for people with failing eyesight! For the first time, scientists have used gene therapy to safely restore vision in a teenager with a rare form of congenital blindness.

Although the patient has not achieved normal vision, the world’s first gene transplant for blindness, carried out by a British team, produced an unprecedented improvement in Steven Howarth’s sight. They injected genes into Mr. Howarth’s worst-affected eye and used the lowest dose in what they claim was strictly a safety trial.

“The evidence of his improvement is compelling. It is more than we could have expected at this stage of treatment,” said Robin Ali, who led the team at University College of London Institute of Ophthalmology and Moorfields Eye Hospital.

The student suffered from a genetic mutation called Leber’s congenital amaurosis, which begins affecting the sight in early childhood and eventually causes total blindness during the patient 20s or 30s.

Born with no peripheral or night vision, Mr. Howarth noticed a marked improvement after the two-hour operation.

“Now, my sight when it’s getting dark or it’s badly lit is definitely better. It’s a small change — but it makes a big difference.” Scientists said the technique could be ready for use within two years to treat people suffering from some inherited diseases of the retina, and within five years it could be ready for testing on people who suffer age-related macular degeneration.

Professor Ali believes this is a proof of principle to treat many conditions, from 100 other inherited kinds to the most common of all, age-related macular degeneration. “It is a major boost. The first trials to use gene therapy to treat macular degeneration could start in three to five years,” said Professor Ali. The study’s results have been published in the New England Journal of Medicine. — PTI