Age-related macular degeneration has two forms. There is dry form and a wet form. The wet form of age-related macular degeneration is caused by blood vessels leaking into and damaging the eye. Those with this form of macular degeneration often have a rapid onset of blindness while those with the dry form progress more slowly.
Scientists in the UK have been attempting to develop a treatment for the wet form of macular degeneration that involves the use of human embryonic stem cells. This week, scientists announced that two patients had received the stem cell treatment. The treatment worked so well that these two patients, who were clinically blind, can now read and see images.
In the procedure, stem cells are placed on a patch that is then applied to the back of the patient’s eye or eyes. In order to keep the body from rejecting the stem cells, the patient must receive an immunosuppressant drug.
Part of the study was to determine if a patient would need to receive the immunosuppressant drugs in a systemic form or if the patient could receive the immunosuppressant drugs in a more localized form. The two patients who recovered their sight were given the localized form of the immunosuppressant drugs.
The patients had pellets of the immunosuppressant drugs placed in their eyes. The pellets then released the drugs slowly over the course of a two to three year period. This worked to allow the stem cells to grow and restore the sight of the two patients.
Doctors in the UK are extremely impressed at how the stem cell therapy worked. At this time, they are estimating that it will be about five years before the treatment is widely available throughout the UK.
There have been no tests as to how the procedure will work on the dry form of age-related macular degeneration. However, doctors believe that there is no reason that the stem cell therapy would work any less well for those with that form of the disease.