Scientists were able to reverse blindness in two people by using an experimental stem cell treatment for age-related macular degeneration, according to a new study.
One of the patients, Douglas Waters, suffered from severe macular degeneration which led to his right eye going blind. However, after undergoing the stem cell treatment, the 86-year-old said that he can “now read the newspaper”.
Age-related macular degeneration involves the deterioration of the macula, a small central area of the retina of the eye that controls visual acuity, or the ability to see things straight in front of us. It is a common cause of vision loss in people ages 50 or older. People rely on visual acuity for daily tasks such as reading and driving.
For this study, researchers focused on a layer of cells behind the macula called the “retinal pigment epithelium”. This component offers nourishment to specific eye cells and is involved in the progression of macular degeneration.
By using stem cells, researchers were able to create a new “patch” of retinal pigment epithelium. To do this, they coaxed embryonic stem cells, which can become any cell in the body, into becoming pigment epithelium cells. This patch was then surgically implanted into the patients’ eyes.
Waters and the other patient, a woman in her 60s, have improved their vision a year after they received the patches.
However, the study stresses that more research is needed to determine the treatment’s overall safety. One concern that could impede on the latest breakthrough would be the possibility that the transplanted cells could become cancerous, however, there has been no sign of this thus far.
The researchers said that the treatment is currently only for “wet” macular degeneration, a form of the disease where the macula is damaged by the growth of the abnormal blood vessels. However, researchers hope that their stem cell treatment will eventually help with “dry” macular degeneration, a form that occurs when the cells in the macula gradually break down.
The study was published in the journal, Nature Biotechnology.
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