In a small but intriguing study, scientists in England have given blind patients some functional vision, using human embryonic stem cells. Two blind patients regained enough sight to read again after getting stem cell implants in their damaged eyes. One was in her sixties and the other his late eighties.
They had a severe form of age-related macular degeneration (AMD) called wet AMD, because of the leaking blood vessels it causes. Wet AMD is less common than the dry form, and dry can sometimes lead to wet.
With age-related macular degeneration, many seniors lose the ability to see, bit by bit. Driving may go. Reading may go. The faces of friends and family disappear. Macular degeneration is the most common cause of blindness in the older population. The more severe the condition, the greater the impact.
There is no cure, so adjusting and making the most of life with less vision is the best approach.
The new treatment, though still in the research stage, is a potential breakthrough for people with macular degeneration. The study was published in the journal Nature Biotechnology this year.
"I am encouraged by the study results. It's a step forward," said Jennifer Lim, MD, director of the retina service at the Eye and Ear Infirmary at the University of Illinois in Chicago. Dr. Lim was not involved with the study.
But Lim cautions that a study with only two people is extremely small, and more research on larger numbers is needed before getting hopes too high.
"This is a 2-person, uncontrolled study. Further work is needed," Lim said. An uncontrolled study means that there was only one group of patients in the study. The results weren't compared to a second group who did not receive treatment.
In age-related macular degeneration, an area in the center of the retina called the macula deteriorates, causing blindness. Deterioration is faster in people with the wet type of the disease.
In the study, stem cell patches were implanted under the dying or atrophied retinas of the two patients. Each patient had one eye implanted. The implanted cells are from a nourishing bottom layer of the retina, called retinal pigment epithelium or RPE.
The foreign cells seem to interact naturally with surrounding tissue to create vision.
The study was designed to look at patient safety, a first step before testing on larger numbers. So far, there haven't been any untreatable side effects.
The technique was successful in animal studies before this experiment with humans. The research team is continuing to treat more humans as part of its study.
"If indeed this new way to replace RPE works, it can avert retinal loss over areas of atrophy," Lim said.
Currently, surgery and medicines may slow the progression of age-related macular degeneration and improve vision. The sooner you get treated the more potential to help.
The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends everyone get a check-up from an ophthalmologist starting at age 40. Anyone experiencing vision changes at any time should see an ophthalmologist right away.
Some So-Called Stem Cell Treatments Can Be Dangerous
Lim wants to be clear that this study is not related to unregulated clinics that inject stem cells into eyes to treat vision loss. This underground practice can have harmful consequences.
As stem cells have become more widely known, some dubious clinics have appeared to take advantage of the buzz around them. There have been several cases of patients being blinded by so-called stem cell treatments that had no real medical basis.
For any medical treatment, you should only visit licensed, medical facilities that have been approved by the state’s medical board. And according to Rahul Khurana, MD, a retina specialist and Associate Clinical Professor in Ophthalmology at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center, right now, stem cells for retinal conditions are only safely being used in clinical trials.