Doctors perform living donor stem cell transplants in eye …

by Jim Ritter

Debra Astrug, who once feared she was going blind, can see fine now, thanks to a stem cell transplant she received from her daughter, Jessica.

The stem cells came from two pieces of tissue that Dr. Charles Bouchard of Loyola University Medical Center removed from the cornea of Jessica's left eye. When Bouchard proposed the innovative procedure, she immediately agreed.

"It's my mom," Jessica said. "If she needs part of my eye, she's got it."

Before the transplant, Debra Astrug's vision was extremely blurred like looking through a glass smeared with Vaseline. She could not read or drive. And when Jessica took her to buy groceries, Debra had to bring a magnifying glass to read labels.

"It was horrible," she said.

But since receiving the stem cell transplant, and wearing special contact lenses, Debra Astrug's vision has improved to 20/25.

Loyola is among a handful of centers that perform living-related corneal stem cell transplants on patients who have too few corneal stem cells. Ophthalmologists traditionally have treated such deficiencies by transplanting stem cells from deceased donors. In these cases, in order to prevent the patient's immune system from rejecting the donated stem cells, patients take immune-suppressing drugs for several years or longer. But such drugs can have toxic side effects and also increase the risk of infections, said Bouchard, who is chair of Loyola's Department of Ophthalmology.

Bouchard is performing corneal/limbal stem cell transplants from living donors who are first-degree relatives of patients. Because the donor and recipient are closely related, most patients can avoid taking systemic immune-suppressing drugs.

Stem cell transplants are the treatment of choice for patients who have severe cases of limbal stem cell deficiency, or LSCD. (Limbal refers to the border of the cornea and sclera. The cornea is the transparent front part of the eye, and the sclera is the white part of the eye.)

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