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A cure for blindness? Stem cells may hold the key

A 60-year-old is the first person in a test to see whether the foundational cells can help reverse a vision problem called macular degeneration. Early results should arrive in December.

Petr Novák, Wikipedia

Researchers have performed an operation in London using stem cells to try to treat one type of blindness.

Surgeons at Moorfields Eye Hospital have implanted eye cells derived from stem cells behind the retinas of a 60-year-old woman whose vision is impaired by a common problem called age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Stem cells, which appear early in an organism's development, are all-purpose cells that grow into various roles as a body grows. These cells were specially engineered to replace cells at the back of the eye that are affected by AMD.

The woman is the first person to take part in a trial for the new technology, which is being run as part of the ongoing London Project to Cure Blindness. The hope among researchers from the project is that the treatment may help to restore the woman's vision.

The test is just the latest attempt by researchers to use stem cells for medical purposes. Many researchers believe their foundational properties mean they will be able to revolutionize medicine, helping treat everything from leukaemia to spinal cord injuries to diabetes.

AMD is just one of many diseases that can result in blindness, but macular degeneration is not a small or insignificant problem. The disease accounts for almost 50 percent of all visual impairment in the developed world. It mainly affects people over the age of 50, and in countries like the UK with aging populations and lengthening average life spans, this means the number of people suffering from the disease is only set to increase, according to Moorfields. The hospital estimates that one in every ten people over the age of 65 has AMD to some degree.

That the operation was been carried out successfully with no complications marks a major milestone in project and a positive step in this current trial, which has been designed to test exactly how safe it is to transplant eye cells derived from stem cells. The cells were grown from a donated early embryo, which is so small and undeveloped that they have the potential to fit into any part of the human body.

The patient is the first of ten people who will receive the treatment in the next 18 months after experiencing sudden loss of vision due to defective blood vessels. Researchers will follow each patient's progress for a year after their operations to assess safety as well as any progress restoring vision. Initial results from the first patient are expected in early December.

Ten patients is a small sample size for any clinical trial, but if the technique is found to be safe, testing could be scaled up at a later date, the project said. "Although we recognise this clinical trial focuses on a small group of AMD patients who have experienced sudden severe visual loss, we hope that many patients may benefit in the future," said University College London's Professor Pete Coffey, the ophthalmologist co-leading the project.