A 60 year-old woman suffering vision loss caused by degeneration of cells in the retina has become the first patient to receive an implant containing replacement cells originally derived from pluripotent human embryonic stem cells.
During an hour long operation, a patch seeded with the cells was inserted at the back of the eye, providing a direct replacement for retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) cells that are destroyed as a result of age-related macular degeneration (AMD).
The patient has experienced no complications to date but the team at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London which carried out the operation will not be able to say whether it was a true success until a further examination in December.
It is being greeted as an encouraging step for the ten year-old London Project to Cure Blindness, a partnership between Moorfields Eye Hospital, University College London, the National Institute for Health Research and US drug company Pfizer.
Ten more patients with the ‘wet’ form of AMD are set to receive the treatment over the next 18 months. They will be monitored for a year following surgery to assess if the treatment is safe and whether their eyesight improves.
“There is real potential that people with wet age-related macular degeneration will benefit in the future from transplantation of these cells,” said Lyndon Da Cruz from Moorfields Eye Hospital, who performed the operation and is co-leading the London Project.
Although being more technically complex in using an implant that is inserted using a specially designed surgical tool, this is not the first clinical study in Europe in which RPE cells derived from a human embryo have been used to treat macular degeneration. The US company, Ocata Therapeutics (then called Advanced Cell Technologies) previously sponsored a phaseI/II trial, also at Moorfields, in which RPE cells were directly injected into the eye.
The first UK patient in that study was treated in January 2012 for an inherited form of macular degeneration called Stargardt’s disease. Last year researchers who carried out the US arm of the trial reported the treatment appeared to be safe and had improved the vision of some patients.
Pioneering cell therapies that can prompt the regeneration and repair of damaged and ageing tissues are being developed to treat a range of diseases, many of which are largely untreatable at present, including spinal cord injuries, heart disease and the after-effects of stroke.