The first time Phillip Durst saw the big A on the chart, he could hardly believe it. It was the first in a series of letters to check his vision in his left eye. “They keep flipping the chart and it keeps getting smaller and smaller, and I keep identifying the letters — that was huge,” said Durst. “It’s like a miracle.”
A year earlier, in April 2017, Durst had lost sight from that same eye after it was hit by a caustic water treatment solution in a work accident. The damage was so severe that a standard corneal transplant would not resolve it. But in April 2018, he underwent a new, innovative procedure: An eye stem cell transplant led by Ula Jurkunas, the associate director of the cornea service at Mass Eye and Ear in Boston.
Durst, now 51 years old, is the first of four patients who were included in a Phase 1 trial of Cultivated Autologous Limbal Epithelial Cell (CALEC) transplant, the results of which were published Friday in Science Advances. The procedure allowed him to become a suitable candidate for another surgery, the artificial corneal transplant, while rehabilitating his vision — and his life.