Stem cells are making headlines again! This is good news, especially for those living with age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the most common blinding eye disease in people over the age of 50. Macular degeneration accounts for almost 50 percent of all visual impairment in the developed world and affects more than a million Canadians.
The story is about 86-year-old Douglas Waters, who developed severe (AMD) in 2015 and lost his vision. Just a few months later, he joined a clinical trial designed to test the safety and effectiveness of an experimental stem cell treatment. The clinical trial aimed to restore Mr. Waters’ vision by replacing the cells in his eye that had been damaged by AMD with a “patch” of new cells.
The transplanted patch contained a layer of retinal pigmented epithelium (RPE) cells. RPE cells provide support and nourishment to the eye’s light-sensitive photoreceptor cells. These new RPE cells were created by coaxing stem cells to turn into (or “differentiate”) into RPE cells. The RPE cells were placed onto a synthetic “patch” and delivered to the eye as a fully formed and connected cell layer. The RPE patch was then inserted under the retina to replace the damaged cells. Transplanting a “patch” of cells, rather than a suspension of single cells, is one of the innovative features that differentiates this clinical trial from the AMD stem cell clinical trial that we reported on last year.
The surgery took place at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London, England, Waters’ hometown. Before the surgery, Mr. Waters’ vision was poor. He had no vision out of his right eye. After the surgery, his eyesight improved so much that he was able to read the newspaper.
“This study represents real progress in regenerative medicine and opens the door on new treatment options for people with age-related macular degeneration,” said co-author Peter Coffey, a professor at the Neuroscience Research Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
The results of this pioneering clinical study were published on March 19, 2018 in Nature Biotechnology. The study investigated whether the patients’ damaged cells could be restored with the stem cell patch. In addition to Waters, a woman in her early 60s, living with severe wet AMD, joined the trial. She and Waters were monitored for 12 months. AMD affects the central (reading) vision while leaving the surrounding vision normal. Incredibly, the experimental treatment enabled both patients to regain their ability to read.
This small trial focused on two patients with wet AMD, but the research team hopes a similar approach could help people with dry AMD, which is the more common form of the disease. Currently there are no treatments for dry AMD.
These positive results are exciting for all of us at the FFB! We know that there is a tremendous need for new sight-saving treatments. Indeed, the drive to develop new treatments motivates everything that we do. We are thrilled to see progress happening around the world. And we are proud, thanks to FFB donors, to be supporting vital, sight-saving stem cell research, such as Dr. Andras Nagy’s and Dr. Michel Cayouette’s work. Curing blindness requires all of us to work together!