Gene therapy helps restore teen’s vision for first time

Gene therapy helps restore teen’s vision for first time

Doctors used new eye drops to treat a rare genetic disorder.

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Story by Freethink

For the first time, a topical gene therapy — designed to heal the wounds of people with “butterfly skin disease” — has been used to restore a person’s vision, suggesting a new way to treat genetic disorders of the eye.

The challenge: Up to 125,000 people worldwide are living with dystrophic epidermolysis bullosa (DEB), an incurable genetic disorder that prevents the body from making collagen 7, a protein that helps strengthen the skin and other connective tissues.Without collagen 7, the skin is incredibly fragile — the slightest friction can lead to the formation of blisters and scarring, most often in the hands and feet, but in severe cases, also the eyes, mouth, and throat.

This has earned DEB the nickname of “butterfly skin disease,” as people with it are said to have skin as delicate as a butterfly’s wings.

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Kristin Houser
Kristin Houser is a staff writer at Freethink, where she covers science and tech. Her written work has appeared in Business Insider, NBC News, and the World Economic Forum’s Agenda, among other publications, and Stephen Colbert once talked about a piece on The Late Show, to her delight. Formerly, Kristin was a staff writer for Futurism and wrote several animated and live action web series.
This man spent over 70 years in an iron lung. What he was able to accomplish is amazing.

Paul Alexander spent more than 70 years confined to an iron lung after a polio infection left him paralyzed at age 6. Here, Alexander uses a mirror attached to the top of his iron lung to view his surroundings.

Allison Smith / The Guardian

It’s a sight we don’t normally see these days: A man lying prone in a big, metal tube with his head sticking out of one end. But it wasn’t so long ago that this sight was unfortunately much more common.

In the first half of the 20th century, tens of thousands of people each year were infected by polio—a highly contagious virus that attacks nerves in the spinal cord and brainstem. Many people survived polio, but a small percentage of people who did were left permanently paralyzed from the virus, requiring support to help them breathe. This support, known as an “iron lung,” manually pulled oxygen in and out of a person’s lungs by changing the pressure inside the machine.

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Sarah Watts

Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago.

When doctors couldn’t stop her daughter’s seizures, this mom earned a PhD and found a treatment herself.

Savannah Salazar (left) and her mother, Tracy Dixon-Salazaar, who earned a PhD in neurobiology in the quest for a treatment of her daughter's seizure disorder.

LGS Foundation

Twenty-eight years ago, Tracy Dixon-Salazaar woke to the sound of her daughter, two-year-old Savannah, in the midst of a medical emergency.

“I entered [Savannah’s room] to see her tiny little body jerking about violently in her bed,” Tracy said in an interview. “I thought she was choking.” When she and her husband frantically called 911, the paramedic told them it was likely that Savannah had had a seizure—a term neither Tracy nor her husband had ever heard before.

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Sarah Watts

Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago.