Thai doctors use stem cells to help blind patients

Doctors at Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok have restored the sight of 75 blind or partially blind patients through stem cell transplants, the first use of that procedure in Thailand and an indicator of the advanced techniques employed in the Thai medical community.

“This is the first time stem cell therapy has been used in Thailand to help restore the sight of the visually impaired,” said Dr. Prasit Waanapa, the dean of Mahidol University’s Faculty of Medicine, which is a sister institution of Siriraj Hospital.

The ophthalmologists employed a technique known as Simple Limbal Epithelial Transplant, or SLET, to reconstruct 86 corneas in the 75 patients during the past five years when doctors first introduced the procedure to the Kingdom. The success rate has been 83 percent.

“Simply put, the technique involves the transplanting of cells directly without the need to create cell cultures in a laboratory before the procedure,” said Dr. Prasit.

Among those who underwent the procedure and had their sight restored was Prakop Kachornrith, who regained his ability to see after having been blinded by a disease called Stevens-Johnson syndrome 22 years ago.

Although he said his sight is still a bit blurry, he can now function on his own and take care of himself, releasing him from the dependency of family and caregivers.

Siriraj was the first hospital established in Thailand and remains its largest health care facility. King Chulalongkorn founded the hospital in 1888 following the death of his son Prince Siriraj as a result of a cholera outbreak.

Mahidol University is the premier medical school in Thailand and bears the name of Prince Mahidol of Songkhla, a Harvard-educated physician, and public health expert who is considered the ‘Father of Thai Medicine.’ He was also the grandfather of the reigning monarch His Majesty King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

In 1923, the Rockefeller Foundation helped Siriraj Hospital and Mahidol University modernize their facilities and programs.