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Eye Transplant Uses Cells From Fetus Patient Discussed Surgery With Minister As Well As Doctors

Sat., Feb. 1, 1997

Surgeons have transplanted retinal cells from an aborted fetus into the left eye of an 80-year-old woman in hopes of curing the leading cause of blindness among older Americans.

Pearl Van Vliet’s left eye had 20/400 vision, which means she must be within 20 feet to see something people with good vision can see at 400 feet; she is legally blind in her right eye.

Tissue the size of a pinhead was placed under a damaged area of her left retina in an operation performed Wednesday by University of Chicago surgeon Samir Patel.

The roughly 250,000 cells were collected from the eyes of a fetus donated by a woman who underwent an abortion to save her life.

Scientists say cells from such second-trimester abortions are the only ones that might help cure age-related macular degeneration, a painless deterioration of vision caused by a breakdown of nerve cells at the back of the eye. Millions of Americans are afflicted with the disorder, but the government estimates that only 1.7 million have their vision impaired by it.

The procedure is not new. Patients at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore and Washington University in St. Louis have received fetal cells for macular degeneration, said Dr. Eugene de Juan, a Johns Hopkins ophthalmologist who performed the surgery.

The procedure was tried two years ago in Sweden by a Columbia University ophthalmologist. The Swedish patients did not show improvement but also showed no deterioration.

Anti-abortion groups oppose the use of fetal tissue in medical procedures, saying it may encourage abortions. Van Vliet, a devout Christian, said she discussed the operation with her minister before proceeding.

“He said I had nothing to do with the abortion, and it would just compound the tragedy if the cells went to waste,” she said Thursday.

Scientists have reported early positive results from using fetal tissue in researching diabetes, leukemia, immune disorders and neurological diseases, including Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s.

It will take a few weeks before doctors determine whether the implanted cells were growing, as hoped, or if they were rejected by Van Vliet’s immune system. It will be at least three months before she can expect any improvement in her vision.

University doctors estimated the cost of such transplants at $10,000.

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