Stem Cells Restore Sight to Macular Degeneration Patients

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Patients with wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD) received a new treatment derived from stem cells and have regained reading vision. 
The study is a major milestone for the London Project to Cure Blindness (a partnership between Moorfields Eye Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology and the National Institute for Health Research). Professor Pete Coffey from UCL said the research may lead to “an affordable 'off-the-shelf' therapy… within the next five years”. However, Macular Degeneration New Zealand, and Macular Disease Foundation Australia have advised caution, more work is needed before this can occur. 

Published in Nature Biotech, the study described the implantation of a specially engineered patch of retinal pigment epithelium cells derived from embryonic stem cells to treat people with sudden severe sight loss from wet AMD. It may also help treat dry AMD in the future. This is the first description of a complete engineered tissue successfully used in this way. 

Two patients underwent the procedure; a woman in her early 60s and a man in his 80s with severe wet AMD. 

The purpose-built introducer tool

The purpose-built introducer tool

The study investigated whether the diseased cells at the back of the patients' affected eyes could be replenished using the stem cell based patch. A specially engineered surgical tool was used to insert the patch under the retina in the affected eye of each patient in an operation lasting one to two hours. 

After 12 months, these two patients who were previously not able to read at all, even with glasses, were reading 60-80 words per minute with normal reading glasses. 

The trial results are very encouraging, but the reality of this as a routine treatment is still many years away and we can't draw too many conclusions from two patients over only 1 year. Much more research is needed to confirm safety, long term efficacy and to determine the most appropriate time to treat. Equally important is to determine whether this type of treatment could be of benefit for people with late dry AMD (geographic atrophy) where there is currently no treatment available.