Two women with a progressive type of blindness showed marked improvement after using human embryonic stem cells. The report has been published in the acclaimed journal The Lancet.
Stem cells are primitive cells in the body and have the capacity to become any cell. In these patients they are coaxed to become and replace the damaged eye cells. Stem cells and bone marrow cells have been used since 1968 in patients with blood cancers like leukemia, aplastic anemia, lymphomas such as Hodgkin’s disease, multiple myeloma and even in ovarian and breast cancers. Many of these stem cells can come from the cord blood or the blood in the umbilical cord that joins the baby to the mother in the womb. After birth the cord blood can be collected and processed to make stem cells. Additionally stem cells may also be obtained from embryos or fetuses. This latter method has quite a few ethical considerations and may thus not be approved in many countries.
In this breakthrough these embyonic stem cells have been used for these women. The stem cells were derived from an embryo in a fertility clinic that a couple had chosen not to use to start a pregnancy and was going to discard
We’re showing these cells indeed seem to be safe and help patients”, says study senior author Robert Lanza of Advanced Cell Technology in Marlborough, Mass., which funded the study. University of California, Los Angeles surgeons on the study team last year injected 50,000 cells each into one eye of two women suffering untreatable forms of macular degeneration, a progressive blindness that afflicts more than 8 million people nationwide. According to Dr. Robert Lanza, the embryo was destroyed after the stem cells were derived, but in the future, doctors will be able to derive stem cells from an embryo without destroying it.
Four months after the injections, neither study patient had lost vision, as usually happens in progressive blindness, or showed signs of abnormal growth in their eyes, quelling fears associated with the cells that they could give rise to tumors. One patient with Stargardt’s macular dystrophy, a common form of blindness in kids, saw demonstrably improved vision, while the other patient’s improvement looked more ambiguous. She also seemed to be seeing better in her uninjected eye.
Before her stem cell treatment in July, Sue Freeman, 78, couldn’t take a walk, go shopping or cook by herself because of macular degeneration, a disease that affects millions of Americans and for which there is no cure. Now, after surgery in one eye, she cooks, shops and walks on her own. The second patient in the study, a 51-year-old woman who preferred not to use her name, said she first noticed a change in her vision a few weeks after surgery when she woke up one morning and looked at an armoire across her bedroom. Later, she noticed she could see the knobs on her stove, which she couldn’t see before at a certain distance. Before having the surgery, the patient couldn’t read any of the letters on an eye chart with extra large letters for people with vision problems, but after the surgery, she could read five letters on the chart, according to the study. Before the surgery, she couldn’t see how many fingers an examiner was holding up in front of her face, but afterward she could. A success story using stem cell for blindness.
“Ten years ago we told these patients they were going to go blind. These results show a lot of promise to change the landscape”, says retinal surgeon Rama Jager of University Retina in Oak Forest, Ill., who was not part of the study. Growth of new cells in the patients’ eyes seen in the study is “really spectacular”, Jager says. “You just don’t see that in these patients.” However, biologist David Prentice of the Family Research Council in Washington D.C., a past critic of embryonic stem cell research, called the results, “way too early, and way too few patients to call this safe.”