Embryonic Stem Cell Trials for Macular Degeneration

Surgeons in London have transplanted stem cells into a human eye as part of a clinical trial for a new method to cure blindness.

The operation was performed on a 60-year-old woman at the famous Moorefields Eye Hospital. It consisted in the transplantation of a small number of specialized embryonic stem cells into the retina of the eye.

The London Blindness Project began 10 years ago with the aim of helping patients suffering from age-related macular degeneration or age-related macular destruction leading to blindness.

As part of this project, 10 patients with wet age-related macular degeneration will undergo this procedure.

All of them suddenly lost their sight as a result of degeneration of blood vessels in the eye.

Over the next year, they will be monitored by doctors who want to make sure that such operations are safe and can lead to a cure.

“The cells look healthy”

Professor Peter Coffey of the Institute of Ophthalmology at University College London, which leads the London Blindness Project, warns that the first results of the operation will not be known until two to three months.

“But already now we are observing the process of adhesion of cells to the retina, and these cells look healthy,” he said.

The cells that are used for this operation are the cells of the retinal pigment epithelium, that is, the layer of cells that surround and feed the photoreceptors in the macula.

With age-related macular degeneration, these cells die off, and as a result, the eye loses the ability to see.

Patients usually experience loss of vision in the central field, and symptoms include blurring and distortion of visible objects.

The cells used in the operation were obtained from the embryo at the initial stage of development and became the basis for the cultivation of more pluripotential stem cells.

“Retinal regeneration”

Professor Lyndon Da Cruz of Moorefields Hospital, who performed the operation, explained: “This is real retinal regeneration. In the past, it was impossible to replace such cells.”

“If we can replace entire layers of cells and restore them to their function, it will be a huge help for people at risk of vision loss.”

If this treatment is successful, it will also be possible to help patients with early symptoms of dry age-related macular degeneration.

In Britain alone, more than 600,000 people suffer from this syndrome. In developed countries, this is the main cause of vision loss.

According to doctors, every tenth person over 65 has some degree of this disease.

This project is funded by the renowned pharmaceutical company Pfizer.

The cost of such an operation remains unknown, although experts point out that treatment and care for the blind are one of the largest items of expenditure in the public health care system in Britain.

Cell selection problem

This is not the first time stem cells have been used to treat blindness.

In 2012, embryonic stem cells were also injected into patients with Stargardt disease or youthful macular degeneration in trials conducted in the United States and Britain with the participation of physicians at Moirfields Hospital.

The current operation is closely related to the history of 40 patients with age-related macular degeneration who were treated at Moorfields Hospital, during which they were transplanted with cells taken from their eyes.

According to Professor Da Cruz, many of them have improved their eyesight, some have become able to read and drive a car, and this improvement has lasted for several years.

According to him, using the patient’s own cells is difficult and risky, and for this reason the London project settled on the use of embryonic stem cells, which can be transformed into any specialized cells.

Experiments on laboratory animals have shown, says the professor, that with the help of surgical methods, it is possible to transplant whole cell layers into the eye.

Although scientists cannot yet predict the outcome of the new method’s trials, years of preparation give them confidence that this method of treating blindness has tremendous potential.