The Possibility of Eye Transplantation

Illustration by Nancy Yang

Illustration by Nancy Yang

The gift of sight is something that can be easily taken for granted, at least until something causes issues with vision. Our eyes allow us to take in extraordinary amounts of information every day, and in many ways, are our primary means of understanding our environment through the power of perception. Our bodies invest a lot of energy into maintaining the eyes and optimizing them to do their job, but issues with eyesight are still incredibly common–over 30 million people are blind and six times that number have some type of visual impairment. Luckily a lot of research has been done on the physiology of the eye, and as a result, a majority of eye related problems are avoidable or even curable. For some incurable cases of blindness, the possibility of an eye transplant may be a patient’s only hope, but eye transplants appear to be impossible since surgeons currently don’t have the means to restore the numerous nerve connections of the optic nerve. However, with the advent of many new developments in the fields of neuroscience and microscopic surgeries, some of these more delicate solutions may become a reality.

Animal eyes require functionality from large regions of the brain, and they recruit much of the active musculature surrounding the eye. Eye transplants have been attempted for many years on various animals like dogs, rats, and sheep with varying levels of success. But in humans, the heightened complexity of blood vessels, nerves, and muscles have consistently led to failure. However, we live in a world of rapid innovation and improving technologies and research along with the advent of new surgical techniques has led to great initiatives into what could previously have been seen as impractical. Currently, a team of surgeons at the University of Pittsburgh are looking to perform the first successful eye transplant, and undertaking that will push the frontiers of neuroscience to new heights.

Recently a gene called BAX has been discovered in mice which seems to be responsible for activating cell death in neurons of the optic nerve after they have been removed from their host organism . The researchers at the University of Pittsburgh are looking to find ways to inhibit the activity of this gene so that optic nerves can be preserved during intensive transplant procedures . The second part to this challenge would be to induce neuronal growth after the nerve has been transplanted into the eye recipient . Reprogramming old neurons of the CNS has proven to be particularly difficult, but new drug advances may allow us to do just that.

The idea of solving the mystery of large scale neuronal communication is something that has captured the imaginations of many researchers and medical professionals around the world. The ability to consistently pinpoint neurons participating in specific signaling pathways would open countless doors into developing cures for many disorders that people suffer from, including neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and ALS.

Organ transplantation has come a long way in the last decade to the point where some transplant procedures have become routine. According to the NIH, “More than 16,000 kidney transplantations were performed in the U.S. last year,” and on top of that, thousands of people also receive liver, heart, lung and intestine transplants. Two-thousand and seventeen will prove to be a very interesting year for medicine, since the first head transplant is scheduled to occur in December by Dr. Sergio Canavero and the rest of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group in Italy, a feat only dreamed about in the near past. Scientific developments seem to leap forward at great speeds–the first kidney transplant was completed just 63 years ago, so it will be breathtaking to see what scientists and doctors will be capable of 63 years from now.

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