The year has just begun, and already scientists have achieved something incredible: they’ve developed a treatment for eye diseases that uses stem cells (pictured above) to repair vision, and the results look promising.
As Reuters Health reported, these study results are even more noteworthy because they are a part of the very first report on the medical use of human embryonic stem cells.
Although there have been many ethical and medical debates regarding the use of human embryonic stem cells, this study could be a game-changer if it is found to be successful in the long-term.
Physicians at the University of California and scientists at the biotechnology company, Advanced Cell Technology conducted the study, which was published in The Lancet on January 23rd.
This groundbreaking clinical trial involved two patients with two very distinctive cases.
The first, as reported by Reuters, is a 51-year-old graphic artist. She has been living with Stargardt’s disease (the most common form of macular degeneration in younger patients) since her teenage years. Because of this eye condition, her vision is slowly getting worse. Before the study, this patient couldn’t read even one letter on a vision chart.
The second participant is a 78-year-old dry macular degeneration patient. This type of vision loss is the leading cause of blindness in the elderly population. Dry macular degeneration caused this woman’s vision to become so bad she hasn’t been shopping in years.
Before the study, both women were registered as legally blind; but researchers report that after receiving the stem cell treatment, their vision has greatly improved.
According to BBC News, the treatment works by taking healthy stem cells from a borrowed human embryo and manipulating them into retina cells.
Stem cells are the origin of every type of cell into the human body. From a single form, embryonic stem cells can literally morph into 200 different types of human cells, and are essentially the building blocks of a developing fetus.
This is what makes embryonic stem cells both extremely important to science, and also a major controversy at the very same time.
During the study, the patients received injections of 50,000 stem cells into their eyes. The researchers reported that post-surgery, the cells attached to the eye as planned, and remained alive during the 16-week study.
The scientists reported that the patients didn’t experience any adverse health reactions and their body didn’t reject the cells.
Better yet, just a week after the procedure, the younger patient “could count fingers, and after one month she could read the top five letters on the eye chart. She could see more color and contrast, has started using the computer, and for the first time in years can read her watch and thread a needle,” according to the Reuters article.
The older participant experienced similar improvements. After the study, she went to a place she hasn’t been in years: the shopping mall.
Regardless of the amazing potential of this eye care treatment, the scientists say this procedure still needs several more years of research to prove it is safe and effective for vision loss patients.
They wrote in 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.”
Despite the possibility of this treatment actually working to improve severe vision loss, some experts aren’t entirely convinced.
Dr. Dusko Illic, senior lecturer in stem cell science at Kings College London who was not involved in the study, was quoted by BBC explaining the importance of safety over effectiveness in these types of trials.
He explained, "We should keep in mind that people are not rats. The number one priority of initial clinical trial is always patient safety. If everyone expects that the blind patients will see after being treated with human embryonic stem cell-derived retinal pigment epithelium, even if the treatment ends up being safe (which is what Advanced Cell Technology are trying to determine in this trial), they risk being unnecessarily disappointed.”
While this type of medical research will always have its critics, there’s no question that this new treatment has made its mark on ophthalmology research and will hopefully lead to a safe, successful treatment to help hundreds of millions of visually impaired people worldwide.
Peter Coffey, Director of the London Project to Cure Blindness, told Reuters, “At last we are seeing fruits of human embryonic stem cell research entering clinical trials.”
Image Courtesy of University of Wisconsin Stem Cell & Regenerative Medicine Center
BBC News Health. “Advanced Cell Technology: Stem cell retinal implants safe”. Web. Jan. 14, 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-16687974
Reuters Health. “First patients shown to improve with embryonic stem cells”. Web. Jan. 24, 2012. http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/01/24/us-stemcells-idUSTRE80M21R20120124
University of Wisconsin Stem Cell & Regenerative Medicine Center. Inner Ear, Retinal and Laryngeal Regeneration. “Images from the Gamm laboratory demonstrating the generation of retinal progenitor cells (green) and neural progenitor cells (blue) from human embryonic stem cells.Meyer JS, Shearer RL et al., PNAS(2009);106(39):16698-16703”. Web. http://stemcells.wisc.edu/research/sensory.html
World Health Organization. Visual impairment and blindness – Fact Sheet No. 282. Web. Oct. 2011. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs282/en/
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