Human embryonic stem cell transplants found to improve vision in clinical trials


January 24, 2012

UCLA's Dr. Steven Schwartz (center) transplanting specialized cells derived from human embryonic stem cells into the eyes of the first patients enrolled in two clinical trials (Photo: Reed Hutchinson/UCLA)

UCLA's Dr. Steven Schwartz (center) transplanting specialized cells derived from human embryonic stem cells into the eyes of the first patients enrolled in two clinical trials (Photo: Reed Hutchinson/UCLA)

UCLA researchers are reporting a milestone in the therapeutic use of stem cells after two legally blind patients who received transplants of specialized retinal cells derived from human embryonic stem cells reported a modest improvement in their vision. Monitoring of the patients' progress over a four month period also found no safety concerns, signs of rejection or abnormal cell growth. The researchers are claiming that the success of the procedure could pave the way for a new therapy to treat eye diseases.

The patients underwent the outpatient transplantation surgeries in July, 2011, when both had relatively low doses of stem-cell-derived retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells transplanted into the space under their retinas. They subsequently received low-dose immunosuppression therapy for a number of weeks following the treatment.

One patient was a woman in her 50s with Stargardt's macular dystrophy who went from only being able to discern hand movements to being able to see a single finger move. She also went from being unable to read any letters on a visual acuity letter-chart to being able to read five letters. Stargardt's disease causes progressive vision loss, usually starting when patients are between 10 to 20 years old.

Meanwhile, the other patient was a woman in her 70s with dry age-related macular degeneration who went from being able to read 21 letters on the chart to being able to read 33 letters a couple of weeks after the transplantation, before her reading stabilized at 28 letters. Dry age-related macular degeneration is the most common form of macular degeneration and the leading cause of blindness in the developed world.

There are no standard treatments for either Stargardt's disease or dry age-related macular degeneration, with both resulting in the deterioration and atrophying of the layer of retinal pigment epithelial cells located beneath the retina that support, protect and provide nutrition for light-sensitive photoreceptors in the eye.

Both patients are part of two separate clinical trials, each of which will eventually include 12 patients. The aim of the trials is to determine the safety of this particular use of stem cell therapy and the patients' ability to tolerate the treatment.

The authors of the preliminary report, which was published online on January 23 in the journal The Lancet, say that, "the ultimate therapeutic goal will be to treat patients earlier in the disease processes, potentially increasing the likelihood of photoreceptor and central visual rescue."

Source: UCLA

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag. All articles by Darren Quick

I\'ll go blind and accept death before accepting a treatment using embryonic stem cells.


Hmmmm. Ground up baby injected into me eyes. Think I\'ll pass. Thanks.


Lets say they discover the way to reset a skin cell into exactly an embrionic stem cell. Would that be aceptable for you?


re; LuchinG

It depends on if they terminated a human life to create the treatment.


Wait till you are going blind like my wife. Then see if you feel the same way

Stephen Wills

I think this is great news, and cant wait until this treatment is ongoing as I know how it feels to be losing your vision suffering from RP at a young age is the worst thing ill ever experience. There is finally a little hope and everyone should be supporting this breakthrough and anyone who is against it should have there eye balls derived from there sockets.

Troy Lapointe

There have been positive results using adult stem cells for treatment of age-related macular degeneration, the most common form of blindess in most of the world, yet we see this push to make embryonic stem cells work. The huge investment by biomedical firms and other investment speculators and the availability of government grants (i.e. taxpayers money) help explain why hESC are pushed so hard. Mr. Willis, do a little research - there may be help for you wife that doesn't involve destroying embryos.

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