Woman has sight loss prevented using stem cells

More than a decade after they were created, a special kind of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) have helped to rescue a patient’s eyesight.

The woman, in her 80s, was suffering from macular degeneration –a common form of age related progressive blindness. Using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS), the team in Japan have stopped further deterioration of the woman’s sight – the first time that iPS cells have been used in this way.

iPS Cells

Induced pluripotent stem cells, unlike those found in an embryo, can be made from adult non-stem cells. Their discovery by Japanese researcher Shinya Yamanaka, was one of the biggest breakthroughs in stem cell technology and was awarded a Nobel prize in 2012.

The team, lead by Masayo Takahashi at the RIKEN Laboratory for Retinal Regeneration in Kobe took skin cells from the woman, and turned them into iPS cells.

These iPS cells were then encouraged to form retinal pigment epithelial cells, which support and nourish the retina cells that capture light for vision. After the diseased tissue of the retina was removed, these cells were inserted on a small patch in the eye with the hope that they would become a part of the eye. It seems to have worked – two years later her vision is the most stable its been since she developed the condition, and the woman describes her vision as ‘brighter’.

“This is a landmark study and opens the door to similar treatments for many diseases,”

Shinya Yamanaka, director of the Center for iPS Cell Research and Application at Kyoto University, and Nobel Prize winner

Too good to be true?

Whilst this study seems to be a great step in the right direction for using stem cells to save and restore sight, there are warnings that unregulated stem cell treatments still have a huge potential to go wrong.

There have been several reports of women needing emergency treatment after paying $5000 to take part in an unregulated study at a private stem cell clinic in 2015. One woman went blind, and for the other two their vision became much worse.

“Patients and physicians in the US should be made aware that not all ‘stem cell’ clinics are safe, and that ‘stem therapy’ as provided in private clinics in the US is unproven and potentially harmful,”

says Thomas Albini at the University of Miami’s Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, Florida, who subsequently treated two of the women.

Ajan Reginald previously reported on whether stem cells could be used to treat macular degeneration.