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A pioneering stem cell treatment restores eyesight in nearly blind patients

A pair of patients with severe vision loss have had their sight restored, courtesy of a pioneering trial using stem cells to regrow crucial tissues in the eye. The first-of-its-kind procedure was carried out on a man in his 80s and woman in her 60s, conducted at the U.K.’s Moorfields Eye Hospital in London. Both patients suffered from visual impairments as the result of a vision disorder called age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

Prior to the operation, both patients were unable to read under any conditions but afterward, they were able to read 60 to 80 words per minute using regular reading glasses. The operation was carried out one year ago, and both have been closely monitored since then.

The trial involved growing a replacement layer of cells called the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE). These are used for supporting the retina cells whose job is to capture light for vision. Loss of vision is caused by the death of the light-sensing retinal cells at the back of the eye, referred to as the macular.

This growth of replacement RPE cells was carried out using human embryonic stem cells, undifferentiated cells which can be prompted to transform into specialized cells, depending on requirements. In this work, the stem cell-based RPE cells were grown on a plastic scaffold, which re-creates the eye’s shapes and structure, before being transplanted into the back of each patient’s eye.

In the past, similar stem cell breakthroughs have been used for everything from giving people with paralysis their sense of touch back to providing a possible cure for Type 1 diabetes.

While this latest vision-related stem cell treatment is very much a trial, the researchers involved hope that this could lead to an “off the shelf” solution based on this study to be available to patients in the future. To reach this point, it will be necessary to carry out other, larger scale clinical trials to further prove the efficacy of the treatment.

A paper describing the work, “Phase 1 clinical study of an embryonic stem cell-derived retinal pigment epithelium patch in age-related macular degeneration,” was recently published in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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