RPE65 Trial Patient Tami Morehouse: “There’s So Much To See”

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Tami Morehouse made research history in the Leber congenital amaurosis world, and in the nation, when at age 44 she became the oldest person in a successful LCA-RPE65 genetic therapy trial, and the first patient to receive the retinal therapy in both eyes.

It’s been a long road for Tami, now 53 and living in the Cleveland area with her husband, Mike.

With no LCA diagnosis until her 30s, Tami made her way through life doing whatever she had to do. Sink or swim, she developed good coping and resource skills.

“I did what I had to do,” she said. “I had enough vision to make it work.”

No one noticed her vision problems until she was about a year old, when nighttime came, and she couldn’t see well at all. Attention focused on the idea she had night blindness.

It is difficult to detect vision clarity in small children, but her mom and dad knew something wasn’t quite right. Doctors picked up on it when she was 5, during an exam in which she recalled she was scared to death, screaming and crying, because they were poking around her eyes.

They determined she had issues with the clarity and clearness of vision, known as visual acuity.

She just adapted

From kindergarten into her 20s, she adapted to her surroundings and to her level of vision. She had difficulty seeing the chalkboard, reading a paper or deciphering bulletin-board postings.

“All of my teachers knew I had a hard time. I needed more light than the average kid. I remember the hallways of my elementary school were very, very dim and I had a hard time making my way around.”

Something her father said a long time ago helped her along the way. Her dad, who always called her Timmer, said, “‘Timmer, we all have our troubles, and if you want me to take you anywhere or do anything, just ask me.’ They just treated me like the typical kid I was not.”

Studying social work at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania, Tami scheduled classes in familiar and comfortable places. She avoided night classes, and when she couldn’t, she’d figure out how to get there, walking in better lit areas.

She realized that all her life she was a tweener – someone poised in-between.

“I was a tweener for forever because I did most things like everyone else did and there was that part that everyone else didn’t know.”

Since she was young, some sort of eye doctor tracked her through the years, but it wasn’t until she got her first social-work job and her then-boyfriend, now-husband, Mike, said they needed to explore potential options.

Finally, a diagnosis

Specialists diagnosed her under the retinitis-pigmentosa umbrella and told her she would lose her vision. They said it was good she already had her education and she should consider having her children now. “It was a heartbreaker day,” Tami recalled.

As she aged, so did her retina and its ability to function well. She went from reading storybooks to her three children to reading Dr. Seuss alphabet books. Some days she saw only hazy grays and browns and needed the brightest lights to see.

“It was really very scary. At that point, before the trial, I had more poor-vision days, than OK-vision days. Sometimes I was scared to death to set my alarm. What if tomorrow is the day I wake up and my vision doesn’t get better? What if I wake up and I can’t see?”

But one Sunday morning, Tami was in the house, and her husband was out in the garage. He suddenly barreled in. He had heard on the radio that a study was being done on children with LCA in Philadelphia by Dr. Jean Bennett and Dr. Albert McGuire. Mike called Bennett the next day, and the wheels turned fast. Bennett opened the study at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to older patients and invited Tami to take part in the Spark Therapeutics trial that would change her life.

RPE65 treatment, an improvement

In March 2009, doctors injected her left eye with healthy cells to help her retina perform more efficiently and regenerate healthy cells.

Several days later, she and her husband were having dinner in Philadelphia and Tami reached over and picked up her drink.

‘Do you know that you just reached over and picked that up, you didn’t feel for it?,’ Mike asked. ‘You just looked out and saw it and picked it up!’

The injection in her right eye in November 2010 brought more brightness and clarity, to the point where she could see some eye-chart letters.

In spring at a baseball practice for one of her sons, she noticed colors more than ever before.

“It was color and light and movement and the kind of stuff people take for granted every day, which may seem small if you have it. Once you lose those little things and then get them back, you realize how important they were. For me it was huge.”

Tami also got to see her daughter taunting the opposing pitcher on her softball team, as she frequently danced up and down the third-base line to almost always steal home.

‘Don’t give up’

Her only wish was that the therapy had been an option sooner, because as the years passed, her retinas kept deteriorating.

“If this was a life-threatening illness,” she quipped, “I would have died a long time ago.”

She advises anyone with LCA-RPE65 to investigate whether the therapy is an option, saying, “Time is of the essence. Don’t give up. There were a lot of us in that trial and we all seem to have different levels of benefits from procedures, whether you have a little vision or a lot of vision. I just value my vision so much, I just think everybody needs to act and respect whatever level you have and just be glad to have it. There’s so much to see. It’s an incredible gift.”