|Doug Oliver, a volunteer at Catholic Charities Senior Enrichment Center, was legally blind, but recently participated in a treatment study that restored his sight through the use of his own stem cells. Here, he speaks with Geneva McElroy at St. Mary Villa. Photo by Theresa Laurence|
Doug Oliver, a former social worker and a current volunteer at Catholic Charities’ Senior Enrichment Center, was legally blind, only able to see vague shapes and colors. Now he can see clearly again, thanks an experimental adult stem cell treatment.
Before he received the treatment, Oliver was driving his car and nearly hit two pedestrians in a crosswalk. “Then I turned another corner and almost hit two more,” he recalled. He was pulled over by a police officer, given a hefty fine and ordered off the road and into the doctor’s office.
Oliver’s doctor confirmed that he had macular degeneration, and told him he was likely to go blind by the time he was 60, and that “there was no hope on the horizon for treatment.”
It was a shock to hear that news in such stark terms, said Oliver, 54. “It put me into a mental tailspin.”
His medical condition, a rare blinding disease called Malattia Leventinese, also had emotional consequences. Not driving, he became isolated and lonely, and began to feel like a burden. “Relationships deteriorated quickly. … It disrupted my life.”
Oliver, who was living in New Hampshire at the time of the diagnosis, moved to Nashville in 2010 to start a new chapter in his life, determined to find some kind of treatment for his near-blindness.
Oliver’s physician at the Vanderbilt Eye Institute suggested he research the website www.clinicaltrials.gov to look for new treatment opportunities. He spent hours carefully scrolling through the website, squinting at the large print on his computer screen.
When Oliver found a Stem Cell Ophthalmology Treatment Study that was being conducted in Florida, he researched as much as he could, and felt confident that this held some promise for him.
Oliver started a Go Fund Me online fundraising campaign to cover the cost of the treatment and travel that would be required, around $12,000. He was chosen to participate, and last August underwent the treatment.
For the procedure, Oliver said, a “researcher took bone marrow from my hip, spun it down in a specialized centrifuge, harvested the stem cells that like to turn into retina cells, added back the other useful parts of the marrow that nourish and protect, put them in a needle and injected them in and around the damaged areas of my eye.”
Ninety minutes and four board-certified specialists later, Oliver was out of the operating room and discharged to his hotel, where he eagerly awaited the results. The transformation was almost immediate. “The first day after surgery, on my left side I had peripheral vision that hadn’t worked in 10 years,” Oliver said. The vision in his right eye began returning the next day.
“I could see my wife’s eyes for the first time,” Oliver said. “I was counting the leaves on the trees. I was acting like a 6-year-old kid,” he said, giddy to have his vision return so quickly. Day by day, his sight continued to improve; within five weeks of the procedure he was cleared to drive again. “It’s all been a whirlwind,” he said.
The true whirlwind began after Oliver’s initial recovery period, when he began sharing his story of successful adult stem cell treatment far and wide. Over the last year, he has taken on the role of “ambassador to the cause” of expanding access to the kind of treatment he received.
“The moral debate is over,” Oliver said. “Adult stem cells hold all of the potential that embryonic stem cells do,” he said, offering his experience as powerful living proof.
The Catholic Church has long supported research and therapies utilizing adult stem cells, which can develop into a variety of specialized cells, alleviating degenerative illnesses by repairing damaged tissues. Adult stem cells are drawn from living human beings without harming them, as well as from umbilical cord blood or bone marrow. The Church opposes any research that harms the human embryo.
Oliver, an outspoken advocate for adult stem cell research and treatment, has worked closely with U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., to build support for a bill known as the “21st Century Cures Act.” The bill would speed approval of drugs and medical devices and boost funding for medical research and treatments for diseases like the hereditary condition that cost Oliver his eyesight.
“We need to open up the kind of treatment that I had that isn’t covered by insurance,” Oliver said. “We need to make the process accessible and speedy.”
Right now, clinical practice is ahead of the research. The “21st Century Cures Act” would help rectify that by loosening regulations on the federal Food and Drug Administration and increasing funding for the National Institutes of Health.
“The NIH is not granting any money to these research projects. That’s a problem,” Oliver said. “This legislation aims to open up funding so patients and private interests don’t have to pay for it,” which can make for a conflict of interest, he said.
The “21st Century Cures Act” has met with opposition from some lawmakers and members of the scientific community, who say that it will not speed up medical innovation as it claims, and would instead weaken the FDA and patient protections.
Oliver, however, wants people to have access to the type of treatment he did, and decide for themselves whether to take part. Thanks to the internet, patients today have access to more research than ever before, and can be better informed to make decisions about their own treatment, Oliver said. “We are no longer powerless.”
As for what’s next, Oliver said he would like to return to work on a new career path, working with patients and medical professionals to maximize patient outcome after treatment, helping with follow up care. He will continue lending his voice to a cause he so strongly believes in.
“I want to work and be a person God can use,” he said.