Stem Cell Research Moves One Step Closer To
Curing Age-Related Macular Degeneration
By Troy Cole
The leading cause of loss of vision in people over 50 is Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD), which causes damage to an area near the center of the retina called the “macula.” Primarily impacting central vision, this damaged area tends to grow as the disease progresses, causing blurred vision and dimness of sight.
There is currently no cure for AMD, though several treatment options exist. First and foremost, doctors recommend a balanced diet and regular exercise to help prevent the disease or decrease its spreading once developed. Aside from living a healthy lifestyle, patients can try a regiment of vitamins developed by the National Eye Institute in an Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS), which was proven to reduce the risk of developing AMD by 25 percent. Finally, there are other, more invasive methods of treating AMD, including anti-angiogenic drugs that can be injected into the eye and even laser surgery to restore abnormal blood vessels.
One new alternative being studied is the potential for stem cells as a cure for vision problems, including AMD. Many optometrists are interested in the progress of this field, which aims primarily to regrow retinal or optic nerve tissue lost to degenerative posterior segment diseases. Several key breakthroughs have been made in recent years that could speed up the process of finding a cure for AMD.
In 2012, The Lancet reported the results of the early stages of a clinical trial by Advanced Cell Technology, which sought to treat muscular degeneration in two legally blind patients. The treatment turned embryonic stem cells into retinal pigment epithelium (RPE cells) and injected them under the retina. Both patients noted improved vision almost immediately after the treatment and saw huge improvements within four weeks.
“Everyone’s been talking about embryonic stem cells, and so they’re saying, well, does it work, does it work? So I think this is the very first time that we have some signals that something very real seems to be happening,” said Dr. Lanza, Chief Scientific Officer at Advanced Cell Technology, in this NPR interview.
After establishing that the stem cells will not be rejected or harmful to the eye, the team is ready to move on to larger scale clinical trials. These studies will include 24 participants and use escalation doses, with each round of patients receiving higher volumes of cells. The hope is that this study will allow the team to move on to more phases of study and eventually be able to treat thousands of patients.
Another development in the field of vision-related stem cell research has surfaced within the last month from John Hopkins stem cell biologist, Elias Zambidis, M.D., Ph.D. Using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) grown from human umbilical cord materials, the study found that injecting these cells into the eye was able to repair retinal damage in mice. Science Daily reports, “The scientists said their cord blood-derived iPSCs compared very well with the ability of human embryonic-derived iPSCs to repair retinal damage.”
Both of these advancements represent huge steps on the path toward finding a cure for AMD. Though there is still a long way to go before this technique is widespread, finding a cure for this disease will help those with macular degeneration due to age remain independent and healthy longer.
Troy Cole works for Kleiman Evangelista, a leading LASIK and eye care provider in Dallas, TX. Check us out on Facebook here.