A woman in the UK has become the first patient to receive a pioneering stem cell treatment designed to restore sight to people experiencing age-related vision loss.
The experimental procedure, which was performed on the anonymous patient last month, involves surgically transplanting eye cells (retinal pigment epithelium) to the patient's eyes. The eye cells, derived from stem cells, are transferred via a specially engineered patch inserted behind the retina.
The 2-hour treatment, the end result of 10 years of research by the London Project to Cure Blindness, is designed to restore vision in patients experiencing age-related macular degeneration (AMD), which makes up almost half of all visual impairment in the developed world and affects up to 50 million people globally.
The stem cell procedure specifically treats 'wet' AMD, which results from fluid leaking into the macula, near the centre of the retina. Dry AMD, which often leads to wet AMD, is caused by a thinning of retinal pigment epithelium in the macula. Right now, there is no treatment for dry AMD.
"There is real potential that people with wet age-related macular degeneration will benefit in the future from transplantation of these cells," said retinal surgeon Lyndon Da Cruz of Moorfields Eye Hospital, in a press release. Da Cruz performed the operation, and is co-leader of the project.
The patient who underwent the surgery last month is being monitored and has experienced no complications to date. The medical team expects to determine the outcome of her initial visual recovery by December, with an additional nine patients also scheduled to undergo the trial treatment over the next year and a half.
The patients' recuperation will be monitored for a year, and if the treatment proves ultimately successful in restoring vision – and sufficiently safe and efficient to secure the approval of regulators – the long-term potential to restore sight to millions of people affected by AMD around the world may be within reach.
"We are tremendously pleased to have reached this stage in the research for a new therapeutic approach," said Pete Coffey from the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology, also co-leader of the initiative. "Although we recognise this clinical trial focuses on a small group of AMD patients who have experienced sudden severe visual loss, we hope that many patients may benefit in the future."