Pioneers in stem cell research have developed a potential treatment for blindness, and it’s being tested on the first patient in the United Kingdom. Doctors hope that stem cell treatments might finally provide a way to restore the gift of sight to patients who have lost it with old age.
According to the National Eye Institute, age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the leading cause of vision loss and blindness among people who are 50-years-old and beyond. In fact, it affects up to 50 million people around the world. And now, thanks to 10 years of research by the London Project to Cure Blindness, people may be able to regain sight after a short 2-hour treatment.
The procedure involves surgically transplanting eye cells, derived from stem cells, to the blind patient’s eye. The stem cells are transferred with a specially engineered patch that’s placed behind the retina. There are two types of AMD — wet and dry — and the stem cell treatment targets the wet form of macular degeneration. There’s currently no cure for dry AMD, but it often turns into wet AMD as fluid leaks into the macula — an area near the center of the retina.
Ten more patients are set to undergo the treatment over the next 18 months, but doctors will be able to confirm whether the operation successfully restored the woman’s sight by this December. So far, she’s being monitored and researchers haven’t come across any complications to date.
After monitoring the other patients’ recovery processes throughout the next year, the doctors will determine whether the stem cell treatment is both safe and efficient — and hopefully secure the approval of regulators. Once that’s all accomplished, people suffering vision loss from macular degeneration will at last have a treatment option with the potential to revive their ability to see.
One of the founders of the London Project to Cure Blindness, Professor Pete Coffey of UCL, told The Guardian that he wouldn’t be working on the new treatment if he didn’t believe in its ability to work.
The London Project has already teamed up with American drug company Pfizer in order to push forward the development and marketing of stem cell therapies. Dr. Berkeley Phillips, UK Medical Director of Pfizer Ltd, said in a press release, “At Pfizer we believe that great science comes through collaboration; no one person has all the answers and together, we can achieve more and move faster. Stem cell-derived therapy was only a theory until recent years, and to be part of a project that is applying the latest scientific breakthroughs to help restore patients’ eyesight is truly rewarding.”