Stem Cells provide long-term treatment for the almost blind

By Alfer A. Guiang | Oct 16, 2014 09:32 AM EDT

In recent years, the wonder of stem cells has been subject of discussions in the academe and the medical world with the discovery on stem cells' efficacy in certain illnesses, including the recent findings on type 1 Diabetes.

Earlier this week, another breakthrough discovery circulated in most media venues, and this still involves stem cell transplants for the treatment of forms of macular degeneration which is said to be a leading cause of loss of vision.

The study was funded by U.S.-based company called Advanced Cell Technology and was published on The Lancet on October 15 (Wednesday).

The research involved 18 people who received the transplants to treat forms of severe vision loss resulting from two types of macular degeneration.

Nine had Stargardt macular degeneration, the leading cause of juvenile blindness, while nine had dry atrophic age-related macular degeneration, the most common cause of vision loss in people over 50, reports from CNN said.

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The participants were observed and followed for three years, and all of them showed no signs of rejection of the cells and no abnormal growth, tumor formation or unwanted tissue types in any of the patients during that time period, CNN reported.

On average, the vision of the patients improved about three lines on the standard eye chart. Overall, 10 of the 18 patients said they had significant improvements in their vision, especially on those parts that received stem cells.

Patients in a control group who were not part of the stem cell transplant did not show similar sight improvement.

According to Dr. Robert Lanza, chief scientific officer at Advanced Cell Technology and funder of the study, said in a journal news release, "Embryonic stem cells have the potential to become any cell type in the body, but transplantation has been complicated by problems. Those problems include the rejection of the transplanted cells by the patient's immune system, as well as the danger that the cells might spur certain types of cancers called teratomas."

"This is the first report showing that the cells are safe in the long term and that they can actually help people," Lanza said,

"You can turns these into insulin-producing cells for diabetes, heart cells to treat heart disease. They can be turned into nerve cells to treat Alzheimer's disease or Parkinson's disease or stroke," he elaborated.

"We treated a 75-year-old horse rancher whose vision was 20/400, which is legally blind, and one month after treatment, his vision had improved 10 lines, which is 20/40 -- and he can even ride his horses again. Other patients report similarly dramatic improvements. It's made a huge difference in the quality of their life," Lanza added as he explained the wonders stem cell transplant could do to the living species body.

"These cells can be used to treat a wide range of human diseases caused by tissue loss or dysfunction," he added as he was optimistic that these groundbreaking findings in stem cell research are just the beginning.

Meanwhile, Dr. C. Michael Samson, co-director of Ocular Immunology and Uveitus Service at The New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai, New York City is hopeful that stem cell technology would eventually be the treat vision loss in patients with retinal disease.

"Vision loss from damage to the retina, whether from macular degeneration or diabetes, is irreversible with currently available treatment options. Stem cell technology offers such patients the best hope in recovering lost vision," he said.

"This pilot study suggests that progress is being made in making stem cell technology to recover vision a reality," Dr. Samson added.

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