A news story this week reported that surgeons working at the "London Project to Cure Blindness" have entered their first patient with 'wet' macular degeneration into a study to receive an implant of retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) cells derived from embryonic stem cells (eSCs).
RPE cells are found in a layer underneath the retina and provide nutrition to the photoreceptor cells in the retina while also removing remove waste products. As macular degeneration progresses, RPE cells can eventually die, which then leads to a loss of function of the photoreceptors and vision loss. For more detail, see here.
It is hoped that this new therapy will help to preserve vision in people with wet macular degeneration. The therapy is not a cure, as it does not alter the underlying cause of the disease. However, it may be a useful treatment if it is found to be safe and effective.
This is not the first time that RPE cells grown from stem cells have been used in humans. A number of other studies are already underway in the USA, Korea, Japan and the UK involving patients with the 'dry' form of macular degeneration as well as Stargardt's disease, a form of macular degeneration that occurs in young people. Initial reports from these studies indicate that the treatments appear to be safe, and that vision may be improved, at least in some people.
It will be several years before these treatments could be considered for general use, assuming the trials continue successfully
The Foundation is not aware of any human trials in Australia for macular degeneration involving stem cell derived implants at this time, although a significant amount of pre-clinical work is underway.
Please note: There are some companies promoting very expensive, unproven 'treatments' for macular degeneration using undifferentiated stem cells, especially in countries with poor regulatory processes. These treatments are not properly tested and may be dangerous.
Always discuss your macular degeneration and treatment with your local ophthalmologist.
If you would like more information on macular degeneration, research for new treatments or to donate to the Macular Disease Foundation Australia Research Grants Program, please call the Foundation on 1800 111 709.
2 October 2015