Why stem cells could lead to a cure for macular disease

Head shot of Professor Lyndon da Cruz

Stem cell trials are taking place all around the world and according to Professor Lyndon da Cruz mark a new chapter in finding a cure for macular disease.

This year all the money raised from our Christmas appeal will go towards research, with an aim of ending macular disease for good. We asked Lyndon da Cruz to explain what a difference this could make to the London Project to Cure Blindness.

“People often wonder why they are always hearing about stem cells as the cure for macular disease. They would much rather some drops or a tablet or at worst an injection that seems to be available for some people with wet macular disease.

“The reason that stem cells are so important in the context of age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is that in dry macular degeneration particularly, but also to a lesser extent with wet degeneration, the critical seeing nerves of the eye – the retina, are lost.  Like nerve cells everywhere in the body, once lost they never regenerate. This is the reason why some people following strokes or spinal cord injuries never regain their function.  In AMD the nerve cell in the retina are lost causing irreversible vision loss in the centre, where the macula is.

“Stem cells are a type of cell that can be directed to become anything. They can now be easily isolated and produced in large amounts. This is an important breakthrough for research scientists as for the first time we can use stem cells to make nerve cells with the potential for replacing the ones that are lost in many irreversible, nerve affecting conditions such as AMD. In fact, researchers in The London Project to Cure Blindness (TLP) have been able to take stem cells and create all of the nerves in the retina.  There are many different cell types throughout the 10 layers of the retina and due to new scientific breakthroughs, it seems we can make most of these.

“More importantly, TLP has recently reported the first outcomes of a clinical trial where stem cells were used to make one layer of the retina and transplanted into the eyes of 2 people who had lost their vision from AMD. The transplants recovered some of their vision including restoring the ability to read large print, when they could not read anything before the transplantation. The trial also showed that the cells were safe and that they could survive without taking immunosuppression tablets as a small immunosuppression capsule could be placed in the eye. 

“Trials like this are commencing around the world and herald a new chapter in the quest to address macular disease and especially the currently untreatable forms of dry AMD where retinal nerve cell loss is the problem.”

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