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Gene Therapy Offers Potential Treatment for Color Blindness

Gene Therapy Offers Potential Treatment for Color Blindness

July 12, 2023

Color blindness, a visual impairment that affects millions worldwide, has long been considered untreatable. However, recent advancements in genetic therapy have brought hope to those suffering from complete color blindness. This therapy has demonstrated promising results in enabling individuals to perceive the color red to some extent.

A limited-scale experiment conducted by Ayelet Mckyton and her research team at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem focused on individuals diagnosed with achromatopsia, a rare form of color blindness. The participants experienced a significant improvement in their ability to distinguish red objects from their surroundings.

Achromatopsia, affecting approximately 1 in every 30,000 to 40,000 people, disrupts the functioning of cone cells responsible for color vision. Individuals with this condition typically lack color vision and can only perceive shades of gray.

The Experimental Procedure

Mckyton and her team hypothesized that introducing functional replicas of the defective gene responsible for achromatopsia into cone cells could partially restore color vision. To test this hypothesis, they conducted a limited-scale experiment involving four participants with achromatopsia, including three adults and a 7-year-old child, all carrying the specific genetic mutation causing the condition.

Using a viral vector, the researchers delivered the correct gene to the cone cells in one eye of each participant, targeting the subretinal region where the cone cells are located. The virus successfully rectified the faulty gene within the cells.

Immediately after the procedure, the participants did not report immediate changes in their visual perception. However, over the following months, some participants began perceiving shades of gray differently compared to their pre-injection experience, indicating a potential improvement in visual abilities.

Further examinations revealed a remarkable development in the treated eye of the participants. They gained the ability to differentiate red objects against dark backgrounds, a capability they previously lacked. While their newfound perception was limited to the color red, it marked a significant breakthrough in the field of color blindness treatment.

Challenges and Limitations

The study drew comparisons to a previous experiment involving sheep as models for human achromatopsia, where gene therapy achieved complete restoration of color vision. However, the situation in humans is more complex due to the activity of rod cells responsible for night vision, which interferes with color perception during daylight hours. In contrast, rod cells in sheep with achromatopsia and unaffected individuals remain dormant.

Mckyton speculates that the active rod cells in the participants' eyes may have hindered the signals generated by the treated cone cells, preventing the achievement of full-color vision. Nonetheless, the insensitivity of rod cells to red light wavelength could explain why the participants could perceive red objects while being unable to detect other colors.

Mckyton acknowledges that further refinement is necessary to enhance the treatment's effectiveness for achromatopsia. Suppression of rod cell activity holds promise, potentially allowing individuals to partially restore color vision without compromising their daytime visual perception. However, this presents a significant challenge that requires additional research and experimentation.

Limited Applicability to Other Forms of Color Blindness

It is unlikely that gene therapies will prove effective for other forms of color blindness, as they are usually not caused by a single correctable mutation. Achromatopsia, with its specific genetic basis, presents a more feasible target for this innovative approach.

Researchers and experts in the field, including Abigail Hackam from the University of Miami, emphasize the complexity of developing a therapy that can fully restore color vision. Additional activation of the brain circuitry responsible for color perception may be necessary beyond genetic treatment to regain full functionality.

The groundbreaking genetic therapy conducted by Mckyton and her team offers hope for individuals with complete color blindness. While the current effectiveness of the therapy is limited to perceiving the color red, it represents a significant step forward in the treatment of achromatopsia.

The study's findings highlight the potential of genetic interventions to partially restore color vision and encourage further research to refine the treatment. Continued monitoring of the participants may lead to administering a repeat injection in their untreated eyes to further enhance their visual capabilities.