Donald A. Fox, a professor of vision sciences at the University of Houston’s College of Optometry, and his team have uncovered some unexpected effects of lead exposure that may one day help prevent and reverse blindness.

The study suggests that lead, or a new drug that acts like lead, could transform human embryonic retinal stem cells into neurons that would be transplanted into patients to treat retinal degenerations.

Fox said these effects occur at blood lead levels at or below 10 micrograms per deciliter, the current low-level of concern by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Because the effects occur below the “safe level,” Fox says it raises more questions about what should be considered the threshold level for an adverse effect of lead on the brain and retina.

“This work has long-term implications in retinal degeneration and diseases where photoreceptors die.” Fox said. “Researchers may be able to use lead as tool in transforming embryonic retinal stem cells into… cells that could be transplanted into diseased retinas, ultimately saving sight and reversing blindness.”

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