Age-Related Macular Degeneration and Stem Cell Success

One big piece of medical news this week was the first indication of potentially successful therapeutic use of human embryonic stem cells.  According to the paper published in the Lancet, researchers wanted to test the safety of injected the stem cells into the eyes of patients who have suffered significant vision lost due to age related macular degeneration, AMD, for short.

Specifically, they used retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) derived from the stem cells, because of the potential for these cells to replace the healthy eye cells that have deteriorated or damaged by AMD.  To the reported surprise of the researchers, not only have the injected RPEs been well tolerated by the two patients, but both women have actually reported vision improvements since the procedure.

Scientists involved in the study emphasized caution that these results are extremely preliminary and do not in any way indicate that these procedures could cure AMD. However, it is a early sign of success of the controversial research done with human embryo derived stem cells. Stem cells are prized in bio-medical research because of their ability to develop into any different kind of cell, but actual therapies have been slow to develop.

Anyways, this study caught my eye, because today I start covering a a conference of researchers dedicated to studying AMD, The Beckman Initiative for Macular Research.   Despite being the leading cause of blindness in the developed world, it is a poorly understood disease. Early research has indicated that the disease could be linked to inheritable factors, environmental and lifestyle factors, immune system processes, and to make matters worse, researchers are still trying to characterize the different types of the disease and the different progressions, which will be necessary before any kind of treatments can be standardized.

I’m pretty excited to be covering this conference, although my report on the discussion of my working group will be confidential for the next couple months, so I can’t keep you posted on it for awhile. It seems like this new stem cell success story out this week might bring some new ideas and new energy to the complex problems of this disease. It’s an interdisciplinary meeting designed to bring people together to find new approaches to these problems, which is pretty cool.

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