Does stem cell treatment for age related macular degeneration work?

You may have recently read or seen a very exciting news story about the use of stem cells in the treatment of age related macular degeneration as part of a trial at Moorfields Eye Hospital.

I thought I would take this opportunity to discuss the most common questions I get asked about stem cell treatment for macular degeneration in my private clinic at Moorfields and Harley Street as it’s becoming a hot topic for my well informed patients keen for any new sight saving advances in technology.

Let’s start with the obvious one.

Does stem cell treatment work?

The simplest answer to this question is we do not know.

Stem cell treatment has been used in trials in the treatment of Stargardt’s Disease (an inherited disease of the retina) and more recently wet age related macular degeneration featured in the recent news story mentioned already.
Firstly, we still have to undergo trials in research to ensure that any potential treatment is safe above all else. Once this is established, we can go on to seeing whether it works effectively (efficacy).

These studies take many years from the idea stage to the available treatment stage and we often hear updates about the interim stages to whet our appetite so to speak. The downside is that these updates can get people’s hopes up and some may feel frustrated at the lack of available treatments for conditions such as dry age related macular degeneration.

Why is dry-age related macular degeneration so difficult to treat with stem cells?

Dry age related macular degeneration describes the natural ageing of cells within the central part of the macula that leads to these cells dying and not working. The result is a central blur patch in your vision.

Researchers have looked into trying to replace these dead cells with new cells. Some researchers have looked at replacing these cells with the patient’s own cells found in other healthier parts of the retina with mixed results.

Recent research carried out by the London Project at Moorfields Eye Hospital and the Institute of Ophthalmology have looked at using stem cells to replace these dead or dying retinal pigment epithelial cells. Stem cells have the unique ability to change themselves into a replacement cells that can work like the tissue around them. This is very exciting and if successful, we may have the ability to regenerate nerve cells which has not been possible yet.
The challenges we face with stem cell treatment are that the eye is a very small organ and the retina is a very thin layer and introducing these stem cells into the retina can be very difficult. Research patients have had direct placement of stem cells into the retina which is expensive and technically challenging.

The challenges don’t stop there. The stem cells may not change to themselves into fully functional replacement cells even if they are in the correct place. They could reject the surrounding tissue and not work.

Where do you get stem cells from?

These are generally donated from very early embryos which are smaller than a pinhead.

What is the future for stem cell treatment for age related macular degeneration?

Exciting as it sounds, we will have to wait.

First we will hear whether the treatment is safe.
If this is proven, then we can commence on to further long term studies to evaluate treatment effect.

Can you get involved with the stem cell trial treatments for age related macular degeneration?

The trials will be recruiting from Moorfields Eye Hospital with specific criteria in the next year or two so watch this space. Remember trial treatments do not always work so don’t worry too much if you cannot participate this time.

If you would like a further chat about these exciting advances or would like a consultation to evaluate your macular degeneration treatment options, please call me on 020 7305 5063 and I would be happy to chat.