Retinal stem cell study shows promise for therapy

SAN DIEGO (KUSI) – Macular degeneration is the leading cause of vision loss for people over the age of 50. Scientists have discovered a new therapy that may actually restore sight in those affected.

Scientists are excited not only because it worked, and helped some people see clearly again, but also because this study puts a focus on an new kind of stem cell therapy, using skin cells.

Macular degeneration causes a blurry or black area in the middle of your field of vision that grows over time, causing more sight loss.

There is no cure, but a new study published this week in the journal The Lancet, is giving patients hope.

Embryonic stem cells were turned into retinal cells and implanted into the eyes of 18 patients.

Vision improved for about half of them.

Dr. Andreas said, “This study was primarily to see if these cells would be safe, and the bonus was that some people started to see better.”

Dr. Andreas Bratyy-Layal and Dr. Suzanne Peterson are stem cell scientists with the Scripps Research Institute.

They see this as a major breakthrough.

Although this sight study did do that, Dr. Peterson says labs around the country, including here in San Diego, are moving away from the practice.

Generating stem cells from skin is relatively new. Researchers say it’s simple genetic engineering.

“The study was started in 2010, 2011, right now we are transitioning into stem cells derived from human skin,” said Dr. Peterson.

“They turn on four specific genes and they become stem cells that can turn into any cell type in the body,” said Dr. Suzanne.

Scientists say this long term retinal study with a positive outcome, is good for the entire research community.

“There really are pioneers in moving stem cell therapy forward and to be able to show it’s safe, is huge for the community, and for all of us,” said Dr. Andreas.

Now that retina study was successful on the smaller scale, it will move onto larger scale trials, hundreds of people cold be testing this therapy soon.

It will mostly likely still be several years, before the general public will be able to go to the doctors office and get this treatment for macular degeneration. 

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