In Brief
  • Age-related macular degeneration affects 10 million
    people in the U.S., and is the most common cause of vision
    loss.
  • AMD has long been considered incurable, but a novel stem
    cell treatment successfully halted the progression of the
    disease in a patient in her 80s.

Creating a Cure

Macular degeneration affects more than 10
million people in the U.S., and is the most common cause of
vision loss. It is caused by the deterioration of the middle
of the retina, called the macula. The macula focuses central
vision and controls our ability to see objects in fine
detail, read, recognize colors and faces, and drive a car.
Until now, the disease has been considered incurable.

An octogenarian with the condition is now the first person to
receive successful treatment with induced
pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. The progression of the woman’s
macular degeneration was arrested by new retinal cells
made in the lab. Unlike embryonic stem cells, iPS cells can
be created from regular adult cells. In this case,
the cells used to repair the damaged retina from macular
degeneration came from the woman’s skin.

The team at Kobe, Japan’s RIKEN Laboratory for Retinal
Regeneration, led by Masayo Takahashi, created iPS cells from
the patient’s skin cells. Then, they encouraged them to
form cells to patch the retinal pigment epithelium. These
cells help nourish and support the retina, allowing it to
capture the light the eye needs to see.

Seeing Brighter

Once the cells were transformed, the team used them to make a
slither measuring 1 by 3 millimeters. This was the patch they
used to replace the diseased tissue removed from the
patient’s retina. Their aim was to stop the degeneration and
save her sight. The results show that the procedure was
technically a success: although her vision did not improve,
the degeneration stopped.

A possible concern about this treatment, however, is that
creating new tissues from stem cells could cause genetic
mutations, which might in turn lead to cancer. While
more research in this area — and its possible applications —
is needed, in the case of the patient at RIKEN,
there have been no signs of cancer or any other
complications.


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