By Adrian Galbreth
Primary results from a human trial involving the use of embryonic stem cells to treat eye diseases have proven positive.
Research carried out by the US firm Advanced Cell Technology and published in The Lancet revealed how the first two patients to receive the treatment, which involves retinal implantation, were exhibiting positive results after four months.
The aim of these first human studies is to establish that the treatment is safe to use.
The treatment takes healthy immature cells from a human embryo, which are then manipulated to grow into the cells that line the back of the eye - the retina.
Experts hope that by injecting these cells into a diseased eye, they will be able to restore vision for people with currently incurable conditions such as Stargardt"s disease - one of the main causes of blindness in young people.
The trials were carried out in conjunction with Jules Stein Eye Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, and involved one female patient in her 50s with Stargardt"s disease and another elderly patient in her 70s with dry age-related macular degeneration (AMD), which is the leading cause of blindness in the developed world.
Each patient was registered blind and given an injection containing 50,000 of the retinal pigment epithelium cells into one diseased eye.
Following surgery, evidence revealed that the cells had attached to the eye"s membrane, and had survived up to 16 weeks of the study, while there were no signs of rejection or abnormal cell growth.
The trial was only intended to establish the safety of the procedure, rather than its efficacy, but experts revealed that the tests subjects" vision had improved.
"The ultimate therapeutic goal will be to treat patients earlier in the disease processes, potentially increasing the likelihood of photoreceptor and central visual rescue."
Nonetheless, they claimed it will still be some time before the treatment is rolled out, as evidenced by the launch of two new, similar studies at the London Moorfields eye Hospital that will take years to produce solid results.
by Emily Tait