Surgeons placed a tiny sphere of about 250,000 foetal cells under the retina of the left eye of a patient suffering from a condition known as macular degeneration, one of the leading causes of blindness in elderly people.
Terry Ernest, chairman of ophthalmology at the University of Chicago Medical Center and one of the surgeons who operated on the woman, said that the retinal cells came from a foetus aborted during the second trimester, because of a threat to the mother's health. In what is, in effect, an experimental procedure, the surgeons hope that the cells will not be rejected and will regenerate in the retina.
A spokesman for the university said yesterday that the operation had been carried out last Wednesday. "Whether it makes a difference in her eyesight we won't know for three months. The early signs that it is working will be no inflammation in the eye and signs that the cells are spreading, which will take a couple of weeks."
The patient, Pearl Van Vliet, a volunteer worker at the hospital, was unable to read or recognise faces from a distance. Previous transplants of foetal retinal cells in four people with a rare inherited eye disorder have produced "somewhat improved sight", according to surgeons at the University of Rochester in New York. However, such transplants have failed in four other people.
In Sweden in 1994, the only other place where this procedure has been tested for macular degeneration, no improvement was reported.
About 15 million people globally suffer from the disorder, and a dramatic rise in cases is expected as the population ages. It involves progressive failure of the central part of the retina - the macular - which distinguishes fine detail. If the disease is caught early, it is possible to prevent further damage with laser treatment, but in the majority of cases it is untreatable. It rarely leads to total blindness as the victim retains peripheral vision.
British scientists expressed some surprise yesterday that the foetal cell transplant had taken place in the United States, where abortion remains a hotly debated political and moral issue. Some fundamental Christians in the US have resorted to violence at clinics where terminations are carried out.
Opponents also vehemently object to transplants using cells from aborted foetuses, claiming that successful transplants will encourage further abortions for the purpose of harvesting foetal tissue. However, scientists are now able to grow large quantities of healthy foetal tissue in the laboratory from a single source.