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Could stem cell research cure our loss of vision?

21 December 2015

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Moorfields Eye Hospital in London could be the first hospital in the world to have someone with age-related macular degeneration return to clear vision, and there are plans for more trials past the first.


The woman, who stepped forward as the first candidate for the trials, will find out sometime in the New Year if the operation has been successful, and if her eyes open once more to the wonders of the world it could change the landscape of eye surgery forever.


Although this first woman, and ten others that have stepped forward to have the experimental steam cell treatment tested on them as well, have the ‘wet’ form of macular degeneration, there is also applications that could apply to those that suffer from what it is most simply referred to as the ‘dry’ form, with studies stating that over 700,000 people suffer from this variation in the United Kingdom alone.


The surgery – currently underway in London – was developed in a collaboration between the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology and the National Institute for Health Research, and one of the project founders, Professor Pete Coffey of the UCL, stated that he could not be working on the research if he didn’t fully believe that it would work.


“It does involve an operation, but we’re trying to make it as straightforward as a cataract operation. It will probably take around forty-five minutes to an hour, and that means that we could treat a substantial amount of patients.”


“There is a possibility of restoring their vision,” he continued.


“The aim of the transplant is to restore the support cells so that the seeing part of the eye is not affected by what would become an increasingly toxic environment, causing deterioration and serious vision loss.”


The initial surgeries are being performed by retinal surgeon Professor Lyndon Da Cruz from Moorfields, who is also a co-founder of the London Project. The team chose people with the dramatic vision loss to see whether the experimental stem cell therapy would reverse their loss of vision, but in those that had dry macular degeneration, Professor Coffey believed that the process would be much slower.


Ever since the first use of stem cell research and transplants in 1989, the idea that the changing of the cells could bring back lost vision has been discussed and researched and developed, and now there could finally be a breakthrough in the long-awaited field.


One such breakthrough is the fact that stem cell transplants are often attacked as external cells, and the body rejects them due to their foreign nature – this is not possible in the eye, due to the acceptance of foreign objects in the eyeball and around the socket.


Overall, this development could lead to stem cell therapies and this could in turn be marketed to a wider audience.


And maybe, sometime in the future, the cure to loss of sight will be sitting on a shelf in a chemists, no more of a miracle than any other medicine or ointment that you walk by on the way to the counter.

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