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New Hope in Macular Degeneration

August 2013

Hope for sufferers of macular degeneration

Professor Robin Ali of the UCL Institute of Opthalmology outlines a breakthrough in stem cell use in eyes and tells Laterlife that clinical trials to reverse blindness could start in five years - if sufficient funds are available.

Macular DegenerationIt is estimated that over 500,000 people in the UK are affected by age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in older people.  There are also other diseases such as Stargardt’s disease that affect the macular in the eye with similar devastating results.

Now Laterlife has learned that major breakthroughs are being made that could eventually lead to the restoration of vision for people suffering from these conditions.

We have been in touch with Professor Robin Ali FMedSci  at the UCL Institute of Opthalmology and he has confirmed details of a major step forward thanks to the use of stem cells.

The research was based around photoreceptors. These are cells in the eye’s retina which react to light and convert it into an electrical signal which is then sent to the brain to translate into vision as we know it. Macular degeneration and other diseases can cause these cells to die off.

The team at the Institute of Opthalmology has now shown that it is possible to replace these special cells with effective new cells which could reverse the damage which causes the blindness.

The team collected thousands of stem cells and in the laboratory primed them to transform into photoreceptors. Once this had been achieved, they injected these cells into the eyes of blind mice.

This has had really exciting results - the stem cells hooked up with the existing structures within the eye and began to function.  This really was a major breakthrough and while not all the new cells did this, enough worked to create serious interest - and a level of excitement - from scientists from around the world. The immune system in the eye is very weak, so there was a low chance of the transplants being rejected.

This is proof that the idea of using stem cells as a basis for transformation into photoreceptors really can work and there is now a basic “route map” to do this in the human eye.

There is a lot of work still to be done here of course, but there is hope that in around five years from now a clinical trial could be started.

However, Professor Robin Ali told Laterlife that funding is a key issue to ensure the programme continues at this level.

“The photoreceptor transplantation programme is being supported by a number of government and charitable funding bodies,” he said. “The main source of funding for this research is the UK Medical Research Council and a number of  private donors. Our pre-clinical research is very well funded, but undertaking clinical trials requires even greater resource. Now that we have a clear route map, starting a clinical trial in five years is achievable but the challenge is to raise sufficient funds to do so within this time scale.”

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