Detailed in a recently published study, a team of ophthalmologists have successfully managed to improve the vision of both of their trial patients, which were declared legally blind due to macular degeneration, by inserting human embryonic stem cells into one eye of each person. Significant improvements were recognized shortly after the procedure, and continued to progress positively in the months that came after, as well. The other eyes that were left untreated remained in the same poor condition as prior to the operation .
Macular degeneration is the leading cause of vision loss among the elderly, while Stargart’s muscular dystrophy, or Stargart’s disease, is a common cause of vision loss among children and young people. Drugs, laser treatment of the retina and so forth only help in slowing down the process, but the end scope of these diseases cannot be derailed, and hence are considered incurable.
Stem cell treatment has been considered an option before, however the procedure conducted by the team of scientists, lead by Steven Schwartz, an opthalmologist and chief of the retina division at UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute, is the first one of its kind.
“This is a big step forward for regenerative medicine, said Dr. Steven Schwartz at UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute. “It’s nowhere near a treatment for vision loss, but it’s a signal that embryonic stem-cell based strategies may work.
The operation involved injecting stem cells into one of each patient’s eye, a 78 year old woman suffering from macular degeneration and another woman, aged 51, who suffered from Stargardt’s macular dystrophy, both declared legally blind, with hopes that the cells required for proper vision will regenerate. The stem cells were treated before being injected into the patients’ eyes, as they were induced to grow into retinal pigment epithelial cells. The loss of these cells located in the pigmented layer of the retina is the leading cause of macular dystrophy.
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The results post the half hour surgery, in which 50,000 stem cells were injected, were remarkable – just a few weeks after the patients went from barely recognizing a hand to counting fingers, reading their own handwriting, pouring a glass of water without spilling it all over the floor and so on. In short, they were given the chance to live a normal life once more. Their vision continued to improve months after the surgery. The patients were also given immunosuppressants to prevent their bodies from rejecting the foreign tissue.
Other scientists have recently commented upon the research, admitting the results are indeed remarkable, while warning at the same time that the trial was conducted only on two persons, and the improvements can still be considered short-term. Extensive studying on a broader range of patients and over longer time is required to accurately measure the effectiveness of stem cell treatment for this kind of operation.
According to Dr. Robert Lanza, chief scientific officer at Advanced Cell Technology and a co-author of the study, the embryo was destroyed after the stem cells were derived, but in the future, doctors will be able to derive stem cells from an embryo without destroying it.
The research was published in the journal The Lancet.