Experimental stem cell treatment continues to maintain vision

A procedure reported here in March 2018 has been shown to continue being a safe and effective method for introducing stem cells into the retina. Eye researcher Professor Pete Coffey, who founded the London Project over a decade ago, has confirmed that two study patients have maintained improvements in their vision five years after surgery. They have gone from not being able to read at all to reading 60 to 80 words per minute with normal reading glasses.

Implantation of a specially engineered patch of retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) cells derived from stem cells has restored vision in the subjects, both of whom are affected by wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Researchers hope the new procedure will also help in the future to treat dry AMD and similar diseases of the retina.

The study investigated whether the diseased cells at the back of the patients’ affected eye could be replenished using the stem cell patch. A specially engineered surgical tool was used to insert the patch under the retina in the affected eye of each patient in operations lasting one to two hours.

This is a major milestone for the London Project. The stem cell-derived ocular cells were developed in part by researchers at UC Santa Barbara.

“This study represents real progress in regenerative medicine and opens the door on new treatment options for people with [AMD],” said Coffey,  “We hope this will soon lead to an affordable ‘off-the-shelf’ therapy.”

It is important to remember that only the retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells are being treated in this study. The RPE is the layer of cells that nourish the photoreceptor (cone and rod) cells, meaning that, in order for vision to be restored, the photoreceptors themselves must be healthy. Scientists are working on replacing photoreceptors with stem cells, but until that becomes possible in humans, stem cell treatment will be limited to restoring RPE health.

PRIMARY SOURCE: Nature Biotechnology