Two older women, both legally blind from degenerative eye disease, have regained some of their sight, thanks to an experimental treatment using human stem cells, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, report.
This is the first time human embryonic stem cells have been used to treat eye disease.
The researchers, with UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute, caution that it’s far too early to call this a cure, but lead researcher Steven D. Schwartz, M.D., a professor of ophthalmalogy, says it could be a milestone in the field of regenerative medicine.
One of the women, age 78, had lost most of her vision to the dry form of macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness among people over 55. The other woman, 51, suffered from Stargardt’s macular dystrophy, a similar disease that begins in childhood and is the leading cause of pediatric blindness.
Schwartz told National Public Radio many more patients will need to be treated for far longer to know if stem cell therapy is really safe and effective. “If we overstate this and raise hopes falsely and then it doesn’t work out, it will hurt people rather than help them.”
The research, published in the journal The Lancet, involved two groups of patients — one suffering from Stargardt’s, and the other with dry macular degeneration, both untreatable conditions.
In each disease, a layer of retinal cells deteriorates and dies, eventually causing blindness. In the study, surgeons injected new retinal cells, made from stem cells, directly into the eye and then tracked the results for four months.
The 78-year-old woman said she began seeing improvement after about six weeks and tests showed she could read more letters on an eye chart. She told NPR she could even make her own breakfast again. With the younger woman, she went from being unable to read any letters on the eye chart to being able to read five of the biggest ones and do routine chores around the house.
This is the only the second government-approved trial using human embryonic stem cells to treat people. The first trial, aimed at treating spinal cord injuries, was abruptly halted two months ago.
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