An acid attack damaged left her disfigured and damaged her left eye. Now, thanks to a pioneering stem-cell surgery, her sight is being restored slowly.
Television presenter and aspiring model Katie Piper, 29, suffered third degree burns and had to have hundreds of surgeries to reconstruct her face after an acid attack in 2008.
In the years following her attack, she fought against the odds to take her face and her life back, undergoing surgeries, intensive therapy, wearing a special plastic pressure mask 23 hours a day to stretch scar tissue—and even putting up The Katie Piper Foundation, a charity to help people live with scars and burns.
But she thought she had lost her fight for good.
“I remember the day I was told I was blind in one eye. I was feeling quite relieved that it was only that eye and not both eyes,” Katie tells BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire.
But after the stem-cell surgery, Piper is now able to identify shapes and colors—after once describing her sight prior to the operation as “like being underwater and looking up at the surface.”
She says she can’t read or write just yet, but recovering her eyesight is helping her live more independently.
“Now I can clearly see silhouettes, I can see movement, depth. If I was looking at somebody’s face, I’d be able to see, the features in their face. But I can’t quite read the eye chart or anything like that yet,” she says.
“I think the big thing that this has given me is the independence, because while I’ve had surgery on the good eye, I’d have to have my parents helping shower and eat. But now I can live independently,” she adds.
Praising the “amazing” doctors at the United Kingdom’s Queen Victoria hospital in East Grinstead, West Sussex, she says her sight came back gradually. “It wasn’t like I took the bandage off and my sight came back like that, it happened gradually,” she tells The Sunday Times.
“After three weeks I started to see results,” she says. “I’d seen a lot of progress with my scars, but my sight was the one injury I’d say to myself was permanent and least expected to change. I do feel like I’m winning,” she raves.
For the surgery, Doctors at the Queen Victoria hospital harvested stem cells from eye tissue taken from the cornea of an anonymous male donor. They then grew the cells in a lab, and three weeks later, placed these on a membrane, which they stitched into Katie’s damaged eye.
They then covered her eye with amniotic membrane—or womb lining donated by women who have had caesarean births. This acted as a bandage.
Piper says that the surgery also destroyed any abnormal cells and the donor cells have stimulated her remaining cells to multiply.
Dr. Sheraz Daya, the surgeon who led the team, says he’s successfully treated more than 60 patients with the procedure. “Our goal is to make sure the cornea heals. The best part of it is that it begins to clear and sight is restored,”
A Channel 4 documentary, to be broadcast tonight (Tuesday) in the U.K., follows Piper as she researches the procedure, weighs its impacts and side effects, undergoes the surgery, and begins her recovery.
Recovering a stolen life
Katie was an aspiring young model in March 2008, when her spurned ex-boyfriend Daniel Lynch, 35, arranged for Stefan Sylvestre, 22, to throw sulfuric acid in her face.
The acid, some of which Piper had swallowed, blinded her in her left eye, and caused partial thickness and full thickness burns. “It spread through my body like fire. I felt as if I was being burned alive, that I was melting like a candle,” she writes in her memoir Beautiful.
The attack took place in North London and Piper was treated in Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, where she was put into an induced coma for 12 days.
Then surgeons — led by eminent Pakistani reconstruction surgeon Dr. Mohammad Ali Jawad — removed all the skin from her face before rebuilding it with the skin substitute Matriderm, and then a skin graft. This procedure was the first of its kind to be done in a single operation.
As part of her care from the U.K.’s National Health Service, Katie was given intensive therapy at the Centre Ster in Lamalou-les-Bains, a clinic in southern France, with a treatment designed to break down scar tissue and prevent skin contraction.
Looking back at the months following her attack, Katie says: “Seeing myself in the mirror for the first time, with my nose and eyelids burned away, my chest and neck melted like candle wax, was the hardest to accept.”
Since then, Katie has had hundreds of plastic surgery operations, including skin grafts to remold the skin around her eyes.
Meanwhile, Lynch and Sylvestre were arrested and are serving life sentences in prison for their crimes.
‘Hundreds of Katie Pipers’ to benefit
Katie’s successful pioneering eye surgery—as well as her advanced facial reconstruction—can benefit hundred of South Asian and West Asian women who are victims of similar acid attacks.
“There are hundreds of Katie Pipers in Pakistan; their disfigured bodies and faces a living testament to their horrific ordeals. Some have lost their sight, others their hearing, and most—if not all—have lost who they were, the faces they knew to be themselves,” writes Hina Hafeezullah Ishaq, an advocate of the high court in Pakistan.
“This kind of violence is rampant in Pakistan and other South Asian countries. In our part of the world, women and girls are burnt on a daily basis through acid attacks and fire, by jilted suitors, suspicious husbands, greedy in-laws and as a result of other feuds,” she writes in an opinion piece for Pakistan’s Daily Times, after watching Katie’s documentary ‘My Beautiful Face’ on Channel 4.
Acid-throwing attacks are most common in Afghanistan, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, China, Ethiopia and Cambodia. Eighty percent of victims are female and almost 70 percent are under 18 years old.
A documentary by Emmy-winning, Karachi-based documentarian Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy follows the lives of Pakistani women victimized by acid-throwing—and documents how Dr. Jawad helps reconstruct their faces—and their lives. The documentary, Saving Face has won an Oscar nomination in the category “Best Documentary, Short Subject.”
In late 2009, Katie Piper established The Katie Piper Foundation. The charity campaigns for the specialist treatment Piper received—such as the after-care scheme undertaken in France—to be more widely available to patients in the U.K. Simon Cowell and Dr. Jawad are foundation patrons.
Eye stem-cell treatments
An embryonic stem cell treatment for eye disease has recently improved the sight of American two women, legally blind for many years—and only after four months, news sites reported on Jan. 24.
The astounding recoveries were part of the United States’s second clinical trial for a stem cell therapy. In the trial, developed by U.S. company Advanced Cell Technology, human embryonic stem cells were used to treat macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness.
The embryonic cells were used to create retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells that protect and provide nutrition for cells that sense light. The trial findings were published online in the medical journal The Lancet.
“It’s a big step forward for regenerative medicine,” says Dr. Steven D. Schwartz, a retina specialist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who treated the two patients.
A third eye stem cell surgery was performed on a patient at the U.K.’s Moorfields Eye Hospital in London The surgery had no complications, CBS News reported.
The London researchers behind the trial to implant stem cells into the eye to restore vision say the successful results appear to suggest the treatment is “safe.”
The researchers told The Lancet: “The ultimate therapeutic goal will be to treat patients earlier in the disease processes, potentially increasing the likelihood of photoreceptor and central visual rescue.”