Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is one of the leading causes of partial blindness in developed countries, affecting almost 50% of those with impaired vision. Although it has historically been difficult to treat, scientists are now developing a new cell replacement therapy that could drastically change this narrative.
How Does AMD Damage Vision?
AMD is caused by damage to rods and cones in the central retina- the cells in the eye that are crucial for converting light so we can see. Although it doesn’t affect peripheral vision, it damages central vision used for reading.
How Does This Stem Cell Therapy Work?
In this stem cell therapy, scientists replace damaged retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) cells, the building blocks for rods and cones in the eye, with healthy ones. These are made from stem cells- cells that have the machinery to grow into any kind of cell.
Grown on a sticky surface of biological glue known as vitronectin, these new RPE cells made from stem cells are inserted into the patients’ eyes and monitored for improvements. With this treatment, rods and cones in the eye can naturally repair themselves and sight can be restored.
Does it Work?
Yes. So far scientists have found that patients who undergo this surgery see significant improvements to their vision. For example, within 12 months of receiving this treatment, patients suffering from severe AMD in a trial for the treatment went from being unable to read at all- even with glasses- to being able to read 60-80 words per minute while wearing normal reading glasses.
Great results; it’s especially fascinating to consider that without the surgery, these patients would have lost their central vision entirely. They would only be left with peripheral vision and would not be able to read.
What Does This Mean for the Future?
While the results look promising, the surgery is still a phase 1 clinical trial. This means that it is still in the first experimental stages. More patients need to be treated before researchers can be sure that the therapy works.
Despite this however, co-author of the study, Peter Coffey has expressed hopes to see this treatment become an affordable ‘off-the-shelf’ therapy available on the UK’s national healthcare system within the next five years.
Only adding to this optimism, it’s also worth noting that other scientists recently tested a similar therapy using a different ‘biological glue’ and reported similar, promising results.
To conclude, scientists are currently looking at stem cell replacement therapy to mimic the eyes’ natural repairing capabilities and help partially blind patients see again. With favourable results so far, it’s a promising treatment to cure AMD-related losses to vision.