El Paso teen travels to China in hopes of seeing

August 2, 2009 10:36:44 AM PDT
The quest for sight that took Lawrence E. Brown III and his family to China for an unproven stem-cell treatment will soon be at an end. Once the El Paso High School senior receives his last umbilical stem-cell transfusion and returns home at the end of the month, about the only thing he'll have left to do is wait.

He'll wait to see whether the nerves in his eyes strengthen and develop.

He'll wait to see whether he can better make out the colors and shapes that have eluded him his entire life.

He'll wait to see.

Brown, 16, was born with optic nerve hypoplasia, an underdevelopment of the nerves in his eyes. He's only ever been able to perceive light and shadows. He could see shapes and colors if objects were held up at just the right angle.

That is, until just less than two weeks ago, when the world began coming into focus.

After raising $60,000 for the procedure and travel expenses, Brown traveled to Qingdao, China, June 20 with his mother and sister.

He began acupuncture and electric wave therapy, which he described in his blog as "like an intense deep-tissue brain massage."

He received his first IV treatment of stem cells four days after his arrival. On June 29, he received his first treatment of stem cells via a needle inserted into his spine.

He and his family decided to try the treatment despite its lack of endorsement from the medical community in the United States.

Patients with optic nerve hypoplasia have long been told there's no treatment for the condition. But Brown sought the possible stem-cell cure after reading about one of its most successful patients -- a Colorado teenager whose vision improved so much that she obtained a driver's permit.

Despite a fear of needles, Brown went forward with the treatment 7,000 miles from home.

By July 1, his eyes began to itch. He became hopeful, because others with the same condition who have had improvement through the therapy had the same response.

On July 9, doctors told Brown his vision had improved slightly. His nystagmus, or rapid involuntary eye movements, had lessened.

"Today, I was able to see a candy wrapper on the floor. This is really exciting news and after this it will only get better," Brown wrote in his blog about his experience in China.

His vision is far from developed, but he's excited by the improvements he's experienced so far.

"Colors such as red and blue, which I have always seen right up against my eyes, are becoming visible from a further distance and much more vivid," he said in an e-mail.

Another new experience is perceiving movement from the shadowy shapes he now sees.

"Yesterday, when we got out of the elevator, he got a little dizzy because the silhouettes were moving," his mom, Georgina A. Brown, said in a telephone interview. "He was kind of disoriented there for a minute because he's never been able to see movement like that."

"The world seems a shade brighter than before," Lawrence Brown wrote.

By July 12, his excitement was evident as he wrote about visiting a Buddhist temple with his mom and sister, though an overcast day kept his new visual experience from being as sharp as it could have been.

"The colors and light were much more vivid to me. I could tell my mom and (sister) Emani every time I saw red," Brown wrote. "It's all over the temples."

A trip to the grocery store filled him with optimism because he noticed the white lines of crosswalks as his taxicab made its way down the street. He said he'd never been able to see those lines from a moving vehicle before that.

"The red lettering on the hospital was also visible to me," he wrote. "I cannot tell the shapes of the letters, but I could point to the red."

He noticed that a mass of red was actually smaller shapes when he stopped to examine flowers.

"I stepped back two yards and was still able to see that they were red. The closer I was, I could see that the red was not all one mass," he wrote.

A rainstorm July 13 made him notice lightning brighter than he'd ever seen before.

He went to bed that night with his eyes itching as they had before.

The Brown family originally was approved to receive eight stem-cell treatments for Lawrence. A ninth packet of cells was approved as his vision improved.

He's to return to El Paso at the end of the month to wait, hoping to watch the world around him become brighter and sharper.

"I am just thankful for the results I have already gotten," Brown said.

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