07. April 2022

First use of gene therapy to prevent blindness in Switzerland

A new gene therapy-based medication is offering protection against blindness to patients with a hereditary retinal condition. A team at the Eye Clinic of University Hospital Basel under Prof. Hendrik Scholl and Prof. Christian Prünte has now administered the medication to a patient in Switzerland for the first time using microsurgery.

 

As has always been the case, people in Switzerland are becoming blind because of rare conditions for which there is seldom any treatment. One such condition is hereditary retinal dystrophy. It is caused by mutations in the genetic material that is required for the correct composition of certain photoreceptors in the eye. The genetic mutation prevents the body from forming a protein that is needed to maintain the rod cells and the cone cells. Over the course of years or decades, this results in the death of these photoreceptors in the retina, and vision gradually diminishes. Sufferers of this condition may go blind as early as young adulthood. Around one in 3,000 people in Switzerland suffers from this rare, hereditary condition.

For some years now, it has been possible to treat one form of hereditary retinal dystrophy with a gene therapy-based medication. The gene-therapeutic agent with the brand name Luxturna has been authorised in Switzerland since 2020. The medication contains a virus that has been rendered harmless but which introduces a gene into the retinal cells. The gene enables the body to once again produce the protein necessary to maintain vision.

The medication is applied beneath the retina by means of microsurgery, and this operation requires considerable expertise and skill as well as the necessary instruments. A team of twelve (image) at the Eye Clinic of University Hospital Basel (USB), led by Prof. Hendrik Scholl and Prof. Christian Prünte, carried out the first such operation in Switzerland on 10 March 2021, on a 51-year-old patient suffering from hereditary retinal dystrophy. The patient’s other eye was treated on 31 March 2022. Both operations went perfectly. In around three months, further tests will demonstrate the efficacy of the medication.

Prof. Hendrik Scholl is the Director and Consultant at the Eye Clinic at USB. Prof. Christian Prünte is a Clinical Consultant at the Eye Clinic and his specialisations include microsurgical operations.

University Hospital Basel is the only centre in Switzerland to offer this newly-authorised gene therapy. The hospital has been granted authorisation because it is able to guarantee optimal operation outcomes thanks to the university’s specialist expertise and innovations in microsurgery, among other reasons. Surgery in the Eye Clinic is currently being comprehensively adapted to digital microscopy. This also enables live imaging of the retina during the operations.