For the first time, Japanese scientists have completed a successful skin-to-eye stem cell transplant in a 70-year-old patient who was diagnosed with age-related macular degeneration (AMD), which is the leading cause of vision loss in older people.
She received the treatment back in 2014 as part of a pilot study, but the scientists wanted to hold off on publishing their results until they had ample time to monitor her progress and make sure the success of the transplanted cells would last.
"I am very pleased that there were no complications with the transplant surgery," project leader Masayo Takahashi from the Riken Center for Developmental Biology stated in a press release back in 2014. "However, this is only the first step for use of [induced pluripotent stem cells] in regenerative medicine. I have renewed my resolve to continue forging ahead until this treatment becomes available to many patients."
Now, closing in on two years after the initial treatment, the researchers have published some exciting results — the transplanted stem cells survived without any adverse events or immune rejection for a year and a half, and led to improved vision for the patient.
The scientists modified the patient’s skin cells and reprogrammed them into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC), which have the potential to effectively transform into any type of tissue within the body — hence how an eye procedure was made possible with skin cells.
The researchers took a small piece of skin from the woman’s arm, about 4 millimeters in diameter, and repurposed the cells to develop into retinal pigment epithelium (RPE). The RPE has several functions, namely, light absorption and immune modulation.
In the study, the RPE cells were cultured in the lab to grow into an ultra-thin sheet, and then the researchers transplanted it behind the retina of the patient.
"The transplanted RPE sheet survived well without any findings [or] indication of immune rejections nor adverse unexpected proliferation for one and a half years, achieving our primary purpose of this pilot study," the researchers said in a statement this week.
They say that they’ve achieved the “primary purpose of this pilot study,” which is “confirmation of the safety of iPSC-based therapy.”
While the patient’s vision wasn’t completely restored, the study still shows a significant step forward in using stem cells to enable people to regain some of their sight.
“I am glad I received the treatment,” the patient told The Japan Times. I feel my eyesight has brightened and widened.”
This isn’t the first time that stem cells have been used to help patients regain sight. Ophthalmologist Jeffrey N. Weiss used stem cells from a blind patient’s bone marrow, and the experimental treatment proved to restore some of her vision.
However, even Weiss says he can’t fully explain how the treatment worked, and he warns his patients upfront that there’s no promise it will work. Since the usual steps leading up to clinical trials can take years, Weiss found a way around the system to start testing his stem cell treatment on his own terms.
There’s obviously still a lot to learn about these stem cell treatments, but so far, they seem to hold a lot of promise — not only for patients who have lost their sight, but for destroying brain cancer, growing functioning skin and organs, and even potentially resurrecting brain dead patients. We may very well be in the midst of a medical revolution.
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