British doctors have successfully used stem cells to repair the degenerative tissue behind the eyes of two patients suffering from age-related macular degeneration. A world first that is very promising.
Both patients were suffering from a condition called macular degeneration, an age-related condition of the retina that accounts for about half of all cases of blindness in the world. In simple terms, the disease involves breaking the layer of cells behind the light-sensitive rods and cones that form the retina of the eye. This layer of tissue — called retinal pigment epithelium — helps transport nutrients into the outer layer of the retina and remove waste. Its loss leads to an accumulation of materials that slowly kill the surrounding cells. Over time, this constant degeneration can gradually widen, and thus disrupt a person’s vision.
The root causes of the failure of this cell layer are not all defined, but the risk of contracting the disease increases significantly in people over 50 years. The problem is that the impacted fabric area is the one that captures most of the details of everything we focus on including reading, television, or even just recognizing faces. But could we reverse the trend? A study on a phase 1 clinical trial shows indeed encouraging results on the improvement of vision in two patients through the use of stem cells.
Douglas Waters, 86, had developed severe age-related macular degeneration (ARMD) in 2015. Half of his field of vision had been impacted: in addition to poor visual acuity, he could not see anything with his right eye. A few months later, he participated in a clinical trial that uses eye cells derived from stem cells. An embryonic stem cell patch only 40 microns thick and 4 x 6 millimeters wide was specially designed and inserted into its retina. These cells had been cultured to reproduce the retinal pigment epithelium. After the surgery, his vision improved so much that he could read the paper and helped his wife to garden.
Another patient — a woman in her sixties — was also involved in this study. More than a year after the operation, both volunteers showed significant improvements. They went to the stage of not being able to read with glasses to be able to read 60 to 80 words per minute with normal reading glasses. “It’s brilliant, I feel so lucky to have found my sight,” Douglas Waters told the BBC. Although the sample is very limited, this study paves the way for new therapeutic options for people with age-related macular degeneration. The procedure will soon be tested on eight other people.