Advancements in stem cell research could make it possible for one baby’s umbilical cord to repair his brother’s eyesight

(Stem Cells News image)

It’s the same umbilical cord that helped to bring Jakob Bielskis a baby brother three weeks ago.
Now, that cord and its treasure trove of genetic material may bring Jakob a clear view of his younger sibling in the future, as doctors use cord-blood stem cells to reverse the blindness the older boy was born with.

That’s the hope of Jakob’s mom and dad, Dawn Villeneuve and Richard Bielskis, as they go through the first frazzled weeks with a new baby — like any infant, Jaxon Bielskis is wide awake at 1:30 a.m., and asleep during the day.
“He’s doing great — he can see already. He’s focusing, and everything,” said Villeneuve.

That wasn’t the case with Jakob, whose vacant eyes led his parents believe something was amiss, even in the first few weeks of his life.
They were right, and doctors confirmed Jakob was afflicted with a rare condition known as optic nerve hypoplasia, where the brain has failed to develop a connection to the eyes.

It can’t yet be treated by doctors in North America, but there has been some success in China, where doctors have been using stem cells to trigger growth of the stunted nerves.
Jakob made headlines in the Sun last year, when he travelled to China for stem-cell therapy, becoming the 40th child in the world to receive the pioneering treatment. That the $75,000 stem-cell transplant was worth it is of no question to the one-year-old’s mom — Villeneuve says her older boy’s life has been altered since the therapy, covered by fundraising.

“He grabs at these flashing balls we have to hold up for him,” said Villeneuve.
“We tested him with them a million times before, and nothing — now he reaches out and grabs at them.”
It was never expected that the trip to China’s Qingdao Chenyang People’s Hospital last fall would result in the miracle of instant sight — if anything, vision would be gradually restored, and might require further treatment.

Still, 11 days after the stem-cell therapy, Jakob’s pupils reacted to light for the first time since his birth — and since then, he responds to his visual environment.
Villeneuve said it’s been more than a case of just fixing his eyes — Jakob’s brain also has to learn to process visual information, after months in the dark.

There are hopeful signs he is seeing and understanding things around him.
“He plays peek-a-boo and covers his eyes, and he’s blowing kisses by putting his hand to his mouth,” she said.
“How else could he know how to do that?”

Doctors in China told Villeneuve that the best chance for Jakob lay in a second round of stem-cell therapy — and if the cells happen to be a genetic match, all the better.

read more on The Calgary Sun

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