WASHINGTON — Doug Oliver was legally blind.
Now he can see.
For the first time in a dozen years, he can make out the dollops of sunlight sparkling on the tops of parked cars. He can read road signs, count the leaves on a tree and clearly see the faces of loved ones, including his wife, Ann, whom he met after his vision had begun to fade.
Oliver, who lives in Nashville, passed another milestone in December when he finally got his driver’s license back. He was barred from getting behind the wheel a decade ago after almost running over four pedestrians crossing the street. “No more driving,” the doctor wrote in his medical files after that near-calamity.
The stem-cell treatment that gave Oliver back his eyesight has been life-changing. A year ago, he couldn’t see well enough to read a newspaper. Now, he’s poring over government documents and advising Congress on legislation that he hopes will eventually give other Americans access to the kind of clinical health trials that restored his vision.
“When these treatments and trials are available,” Oliver said, “we should welcome them with open arms.”
His contribution to the legislation, set for a Senate vote within a few weeks, has been crucial, said U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the committee that oversees health issues.
The legislation is a compilation of bipartisan proposals that aim to speed approval of drugs and medical devices and boost funding for medical research into treatments and cures for diseases like cancer and the hereditary condition that robbed Oliver of his sight.
Alexander says the bill is the most far-reaching, and one of the most important, of his career.
The senator asked Oliver for his input. Oliver had written to Alexander and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, hoping they could clear the way for him to tell his story to the Food and Drug Administration. The hearing where Oliver had hoped to testify was eventually canceled, but Alexander was so taken with him that he asked for Oliver’s advice on the biomedical legislation his committee was preparing.
“When Doug and I talked, I told him that his powerful personal story highlights exactly what we’re trying to accomplish —to take advantage of this exciting time in science so that patients can access the safe, cutting-edge care they need,” Alexander said.
Oliver reviewed drafts of the bill and suggested changes in its language. He also offered his opinion on several sections that seek to give people with chronic, incurable diseases a pathway to treatments with minimal federal regulations or barriers.
“It’s crucial that Congress and the FDA listen to people like Doug when evaluating the benefits and risks of policy and medical products,” Alexander said.
Oliver, 54, underwent stem-cell treatment in Florida last August to correct a rare form of macular degeneration, an incurable disease that affects the retina. In his case, the vision in both eyes was severely impaired.
Following the suggestion of a doctor at the Vanderbilt Eye Institute, Oliver searched for clinical trials and eventually discovered the Stem Cell Ophthalmology Treatment Study. The privately funded, federally approved trial being conducted near Fort Lauderdale, Fla., tests stem-cell treatment on people with macular degeneration and various retinal disorders.
Last August, doctors used a needle to extract stem cells from Oliver’s hip bone, spun them in a centrifuge, then injected them into the damaged areas of his eyes in the hope they would help grow into healthy cells that could restore his vision.
Almost immediately, Oliver’s eyesight started to improve. Two days after the procedure, his peripheral vision returned. The next day, for the first time in years, he could clearly see the lines on a grid vision test.
“I began weeping,” he said.
Oliver sees the study as an example of the medical miracles that are possible with stem-cell treatment and the impact it can have on people’s lives. The FDA regulates stem cells to make sure they are safe and effective, but Oliver thinks the agency should eliminate regulatory barriers to the kind of treatments that restored his vision.
“There are treatments of different sorts available,” he said, “And people who desire to try to be treated should have access to that privilege.”
Now that his vision has returned and his work on the legislation is nearing an end, Oliver is ready to get back to enjoying life’s simple pleasures.
“After all of this is said and done and the legislation is passed,” he said, “I’m going fishing.”
Michael Collins is the Washington correspondent for the Knoxville News Sentinel and The Commercial Appeal in Memphis. His weekly Tennessee in D.C. column highlights Volunteer State lawmakers, causes and connections. Reach him at 703-854-8927 or firstname.lastname@example.org.