Two elderly patients in the United Kingdom recently underwent a breakthrough form of stem cell therapy, restoring their eyesight and essentially reversing macular degeneration.
Macular degeneration is an age-related eye disease that eventually leads to blindness. The disease is responsible for about 50% of all cases of blindness. The macula is the part of the eye that allows forward vision. It’s made up of light-sensitive cones and rods, behind which is a layer of supportive cells called the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE). When these cells break down, it leads to macular degeneration.
There are two forms of macular degeneration: “wet” macular degeneration caused by abnormal blood vessels damaging the macula and “dry” macular degeneration caused by the RPE breaking down over time. It’s hoped that the new treatment will treat both forms.
Researchers found a way to build a new RPE using stem cells that is surgically implanted. The process begins with embryonic stem cells, which are converted into the type of cells that make up a healthy RPE. The cells are embedded into a unique scaffold that holds them in the correct position. The living scaffold is implanted beneath the cones and rods in the back of the eye in a breakthrough surgical procedure.
Current treatment options for macular degeneration are limited and can only slow the disease. Anti-angiogenic drugs can be injected into the eye to stop new blood vessels from forming and stop leaks from abnormal blood vessels in “wet” macular degeneration. Laser therapy can also sometimes destroy abnormal blood vessels.
While the treatment does not cure eye disease because it can’t restore normal vision, it does restore eyesight. Two patients had one diseased eye operated on with the new procedure. Both patients have maintained their improved vision for one year. An additional eight patients will participate in a new clinical trial to further test the therapy.
The team that developed the treatment hopes it will be an affordable treatment available within five years, assuming the next trial is successful.