Stem cell treatment may cure blindness: Study

RPE is the pigmented cell layer just outside the retina that nourishes retinal visual cells. Vision improved in both patients.

Written by Abantika Ghosh | New Delhi | Published:January 25, 2012 1:03 am

The first human trial for stem cell treatment to cure blindness done by researchers at the Jules Stein Eye Institute,University of California,has thrown up promising results in dealing with macular degeneration — a common cause of blindness in older people. The results were published in The Lancet on Monday.

Two blind women suffering from Stargardt’s macular dystrophy (this occurs within the first two decades of life) and age-related macular degeneration received subretinal transplantation of human embryonic stem cell (hESC) derived retinal pigment epithelium (RPE). RPE is the pigmented cell layer just outside the retina that nourishes retinal visual cells. Vision improved in both patients.

Macular degeneration is a condition in which an individual loses vision in the centre of the visual field (macula) because of damage to the retina. It is believed to be the cause of 12 per cent of blindness cases in India and its present treatment is restricted to measures to limit the damage rather than reverse the process which is what the new treatment now promises.

Dr R P Singh,senior consultant ophthalmologist at Indraprastha Hospital,who had worked on stem cell treatment for blindness,says that the results of the study are “fantastic” as the researchers seem to have overcome two of the most difficult roadblocks — challenge of retrieval of stem cells and the extremely complicated nature of the surgery.

Dr Arun Sethi,senior consultant ophthalmologist,Medanta Medicity said: “The study does hold promise for the future because macular degeneration is one of the leading causes of blindness. But there are some caveats in this. First,it would be a very difficult procedure to do this in the eye and leave the retina undamaged. Secondly,it is still at a very nascent stage and the small sample size means a lot more studies are required to understand the process and realise its true potential. Another factor would be the cost of the treatment.”

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