Through stem cell research, two Madison men who suffer from a genetic condition that causes blindness and hearing loss are receiving experimental treatment.
Johnny and Mike Walsh, sons of University of Wisconsin Regent David Walsh who suffer from Usher disease are helping David Gamm, a UW professor and expert in retinal and stem biology, by giving him their blood cells in order to search for a treatment for degenerative eye conditions.
Johnny has had hearing problems from birth and is now legally blind. However, he maintains a positive attitude due to the experimental treatment he is receiving in Madison and does not let his disability get in the way of his career as an attorney at Axley Brynelson LLP.
“It is interesting that here I am in Madison getting a diagnosis and then having such a great research institution there in my backyard … and it’s convenient for them to have my family there because you got four kids, three who carry the genes, two who are affected and one who isn’t. So you have a perfect control right there, I think that’s kind of neat for Dr. [David] Gamm to have and he takes our blood whenever he needs it,” Walsh said.
Mike started a project entitled “Flight4Sight,” where he travels the world to spread awareness and understanding about blindness. His project is on Facebook and a blog, where he takes his followers’ advice on where to travel next.
Mike said he benefits from the research Gamm, of the Waisman Center, does.
Gamm is working closely with Cellular Dynamics International, a Madison-based company which has recently received a $1.2 million grant to continue their research on human stem cells.
CDI specializes in creating human cells, including various types of stem cells. With the National Eye Institute’s funding, CDI will carry out this stem cell-based research in the first study of its kind to be performed in the United States.
Eye conditions that include dry age-related macular degeneration affect as many as 11 million Americans who have some form of macular degeneration, according to the CDI statement regarding the grant. The cells being used for this study are CDI developed and manufactured through induced pluripotent stem cells, which will potentially have application in discovering treatments for retinal and eye conditions.
The goal of the study will be to find out how to reprogram stem cells in order to make retina cells to prevent further damage in decaying eyes and eye conditions, Gamm said.
With the grant money from NEI, the study will be designed to see whether the use of a specific kind of stem cell called an iPSC to create human stem cells is safe or not, Gamm said.
“I think the important part is thus far things have proven to be safe … We want to establish this is a safe procedure and then carefully evaluate the trials, determine what works, what doesn’t work, then make steps forward to improve the technology,” Gamm said.
Researchers will hopefully become better at the types of therapies involving stem cells, Gamm said. The goal is to be able to find a cure for patients with vision loss or other similar diseases that have no cure, he said.
Though most stem cell treatments are not being used at the moment, they are used in ongoing clinical trials, Professor Stephen Duncan, an expert in cell biology from the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, said.
“Within the next five or 10 years we could start to see [stem cell] treatments coming into the clinics and hospitals being used for actual treatments,” Duncan said.
*In a previous version the article stated the brothers were receiving experimental treatment from Dr. Gamm in paragraph 2.