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Stem cell 'patch' offers hope for macular degeneration

Doctors at Moorfields Eye Hospital say they have restored vision in two patients

Mark Gould

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Doctors at Moorfields Eye Hospital are expressing cautious optimism about a new treatment for age-related macular degeneration- the most common cause of blindness in the UK.

They have devised a way of using stem cells to build a new retinal pigment epithelium and surgically implanting it into the eye.

The technique, described in Nature Biotechnology*, starts with embryonic stem cells that are converted into the type of cell that makes up the retinal pigment epithelium and embedded into a scaffold to hold them in place.

The living patch is only one layer of cells thick - about 40 microns - and 6mm long and 4mm wide. It is then placed underneath the rods and cones in the back of the eye. The operation takes up to two hours.

However, they step back from calling the pioneering treatment a 'cure' as completely normal vision is not restored. Eight more patients will take part in further clinical trials to ensure safety. One concern is the transplanted cells could become cancerous, although there have been no such signs to date.

So far two patients, Douglas Waters, 86, and a woman in her early sixties, have maintained improved vision in the treated eye for a year. They went from not being able to read with their affected eye at all, to reading 60 to 80 words per minute.

Mr Waters could not see out of his right eye, but "I can now read the newspaper" with it, he says.

He says: "In the months before the operation my sight was really poor and I couldn't see anything out of my right eye.

"It's brilliant what the team have done and I feel so lucky to have been given my sight back."

Professor Lyndon da Cruz, a consultant retinal surgeon at Moorfields, told the BBC: "We've restored vision where there was none.

"It's incredibly exciting. As you get older, parts of you stop working and for the first time we've been able to take a cell and make it into a specific part of the eye that's failing and put it back in the eye and get vision back.

"However, he does not call this a ‘cure’ as completely normal vision is not restored.

*Cruz L, Fynes K, J Coffey PJ. Phase 1 clinical study of an embryonic stem cell–derived retinal pigment epithelium patch in age-related macular degeneration. Nature Biotechnology, doi:10.1038/nbt.4114

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