A cure for blindness could be in reach after doctors used stem cells to restore the sight of two patients in the UK
British doctors have successfully used stem cells to combat degenerating tissue in the eyes of two patients, marking a breakthrough moment towards curing the most common form of blindness in the UK.
Age-related macular degeneration happens when the section of the eye’s retina that allows detailed, central vision – known as the macular – is damaged by either abnormal blood vessels or deposits of a fatty protein. It leads to loss of central vision, making it difficult to read or recognise faces.
As part of a case study, published in the journal Nature, two patients were given experimental stem cell therapy at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London. “In the months before the operation my sight was really poor and I couldn’t see anything out of my right eye,” one of the patients, Douglas Waters, 86, told the BBC.
For the procedure, cells were first taken from a human embryo. The nature of stem cells means that they can grow to become any type of cell in the human body. The scientists converted these stem cells into the complex cells of the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE), then coated them with a synthetic compound, fixed onto a scaffold to keep them in place.
This patch of cells, only 40 microns thick, 6mm long and 4mm wide, was then carefully inserted into the back of the patient’s eye, beneath the rods and cones.
A year later, both patients reported improvements to their vision, with Waters now claiming to be able to read a newspaper. “It’s brilliant what the team have done and I feel so lucky to have been given my sight back,” he said.
The cell graft wasn’t flawless, though. Some small areas of rejection meant the new cells were spread unevenly, and vision isn’t entirely recovered. Still, the reported improvements give the 600,000 people with age-related macular degeneration in the UK a cause for hope.
The team behind the research now has permission to test the process on eight other patients, and will be monitoring further cases of rejection. If everything goes according to plan, it could pave the way for the technique being made widely available.
“We hope this will lead to an affordable ‘off-the-shelf’ therapy that could be made available to NHS patients within the next five years,” professor Pete Coffey, from the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology, told the broadcaster.
The study comes in the wake of another that investigated the use of stem cells to treat multiple sclerosis. This treatment involved wiping out a patient’s immune system using cancer drugs, and then rebooting it with a stem cell transplant. While the full results have yet to be released, the interim findings suggest the experimental procedure could halt the progress of the disease, and even relieve symptoms for patients.