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Breakthrough: Stem Cell Technology Can Cure Blindness Caused By Macular Degeneration

In a breakthrough procedure, British surgeons have successfully used stem cells to restore the vision of two aging patients suffering from macular degeneration, a condition responsible for half the cases of blindness all over the world.

The results of the first ever clinical trial of this procedure was recently published in the journal Nature Biotechnology and has the potential to revolutionize the way vision is restored around the world.

What Is Macular Degeneration?

Macular degeneration is an age-related tissue degeneration of the retinal pigment epithelium that is present right behind the rods and cones of the retina.

When healthy, the retinal pigment epithelium is responsible for transporting nutrients and removing waste material produced by the surrounding cells. So when this layer starts to degenerate due to age (generally after 50), it loses its ability to clear out waste matter, which slowly destroys all the surrounding cells of the retina.

This leads to the formation of a blind spot in the macula of the eye, which is the most-sensitive part of the retina, thus causing partial blindness where the peripheral vision is spared but the central vision is destroyed.

A person suffering from macular degeneration cannot read, drive, or recognize people's faces.

How Do You Treat Macular Degeneration?

There are many treatment options available to people suffering from this disease, but all of them only aim to stall its progression. Until now.

The novel stem-cell-based repair surgery was given the green signal for clinical trial a year ago, which allowed the researchers to implant a 4 x 6 mm stem-cell patch into the retinas of two patients. These cells were coated with a synthetic compound to enable them to remain in place but continue dividing into the specialized cells of the retinal pigment epithelium.

The patients were followed up with over the next 12 months to study the behavior of the stem-cell implant. The results were:

Some of the cells were rejected by the body, but overall, the implant functioned relatively well.
The patients recovered their failing vision, even if it was not as sharp as their vision used to be before the degenerative disease set in.

Other Areas Where Stem Cells Have Made Massive Breakthroughs

Stem-cell technology has been picking up steam for quite some time now. The following are other areas where stem cells have made massive breakthroughs:

In 2007, Dr Shinya Yamanaka at Kyoto University discovered that human skin cells had the potential to be converted into heart stem cells. This allowed researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical Hospital to create a beating human heart out of skin cells in 2016, which is the closest we have come to synthesizing organs fit for transplantation.
Earlier in 2017, researchers at the Universities of Bristol, Cambridge, and Oxford successfully created synthetic, immune-silent blood out of stem cells. Named ErythroMer, the synthetic blood is currently going through human trials.
Scientists can now grow "mini brains" in labs out of stem cells. These organoids resemble actual human brains and are currently being used to study neurological diseases and fully study this mystery organ.

The Future Is Here!

Scientific breakthroughs and discoveries are occurring at an exponential pace at present. So you can definitely expect even more awe-inducing revelations to happen by the end of 2018.

Story first published: Thursday, March 22, 2018, 13:00 [IST]
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