Brookings resident Jim Beebe is seeing the world through new eyes.
Beebe, who is 78 years old and a retired securities trader, was part of an experimental group that received stem cell transplants at the University of California, Davis near Sacramento.
Beebe had stem cells from his sister implanted in his right eye after almost going blind from glaucoma drops.
In 1985, Beebe started using the glaucoma drops in his eyes after being given them by a doctor in Marin County, Calif. The glaucoma itself was not a threat to his sight, but he was allergic to the drops and didnt know it. He stopped taking the drops around 1992 and his sight rapidly deteriorated at that point.
The allergy to the drops poisoned his corneal stem cells. These cells are located where the clear cornea meets the white sclera of the eyeball. Beebe said his vision became blurred at every distance.
He went from having 20/20 or perfect vision, to having 20/200 in both eyes, which meant he was nearly blind.
His wife, Jean Beebe, had to take over several tasks that Jim used to perform, the most difficulty being driving.
Jim told his wife on Christmas Eve in 1994 that he wasnt able to drive anymore.
Jeans left eye was damaged at birth and she has sight only in her right eye. She hadnt driven for 35 years and had to start doing all the driving when Jims sight deteriorated.
The driving was the hardest thing to do physically because I have no depth perception, Jean said. But to see him lose his sight everything he does is with his mind. I thought, whats going to happen?
I traveled to doctors up and down the coast to try and find out what the problem was, Jim said.
He went to the Casey Institute in Portland and even went to the Wills Hospital in Philadelphia in search of a diagnosis. He said the doctors at Wills Hospital knew something was wrong with his eyes, but they couldnt diagnose the problem.
He was finally diagnosed by the doctors at the Proctor Foundation at University of California, San Francisco.
Beebe said they pinpointed the drops as the cause of the problem, but didnt know whether it was the medicine or the preservatives in the drops that had caused the problem.
Dr. Scott McCray of the Casey Institute in Portland had attended a symposium on stem cell transplants given by Dr. Ivan Schwab at University of California, Davis.
Dr. Schwab is a co-author of a stem cell transplant study in the July 2000 issue of the journal Cornea. He is also a co-author of an editorial on bioengineering corneas in the same journal.
In 1994, Beebe traveled to Sacramento to see Dr. Schwab who told him that he was at least two years from doing person to person transplants with the stem cells.
At that point, Dr. Schwab could do stem cell transplants from one eye to the other in the same person, but doing it with donated cells was untried, Beebe said.
Beebe continued to keep in touch with Dr. Schwab and in early 1998, Schwab suggested Beebe find a donor for a stem cell operation, Beebe said.
The doctor suggested a sibling because the tissue of siblings is generally a close match, which reduces the risk of rejection, Beebe said.
Beebes sister, Sally Kittredge who was 71 at the time, agreed to donate the cells.
Kittredges donation procedure took about five minutes, Beebe said. She was given a local anesthetic in her eye and one corner of the membrane that covered her eye was pried up and the cells extracted.
The cells were placed on a sterile amniotic membrane to support them as they grew in a petri dish. The membranes are used to support the cells because they do not trigger an immune reaction.
In August 1998, six weeks after the cells were placed on the placenta to grow, Dr. Schwab performed the transplant on Beebe.
Beebe said he was on the operating table for about two hours. The doctor sewed the entire placenta on Beebes right eye with stitches.
The bandage was removed the next morning and Beebes body gradually absorbed the cells. The stitches were removed in November 1998.
When he got out of the shower and looked in the mirror, he could see a little better each day, Beebe said.
It set my day up every day, he said.
In early 1999, Beebe got contacts to assist his sight.
His left eye is stable, but his sight is better in his right eye. He said he didnt have the left eye operated on because the stem cell transplant was an experimental procedure and he didnt want to lose sight in both eyes.
My right eye was so poor that it wouldnt have been a tremendous loss if it was lost completely, Beebe said.
He said he could have the operation done on his left eye, but his sight is 20/80 and that is plenty to allow him to see. He said he doesnt plan to have anything done with his left eye.
When his sight deteriorated, Beebe had to give up many of the activities he loved. He could no longer play golf, fish or participate in his poker club. He also had to stop making the crossword he produced for the Nickel newspaper every month. He did all the bookkeeping for his wifes mail order porcelain business and while he continued to do it, it took a lot longer than it had before, he said.
Now that he can see again, Beebe said he plans to return to making the crossword and playing poker.
I cant tell you how great it is to get my vision back, he said. I always felt that somehow, someday, I would get better. I can see again.
Unfortunately, he no longer can play golf because he cant see where the ball goes when it is in the air.
My eyes dont adjust quickly from one distance to another, he said. I dont know why that is.
Out of the 14 people who had the operation, 70 percent were successful, said Dr. Schwab. Four of the 14 people had a donor and 10 had a direct transplant from one eye to another, Beebe said.
Beebe expects to have no problems with his eyesight in the future. He said that if the cells werent rejected within the first nine months after the transplant, there is a good chance they will not be rejected.
Beebe is under the care of Dr. Larry Eninger at the Pacific Vision Medical Center in Brookings.