On July 12, 2011, scientists at the UCLA Jules Stein Eye Institute quietly made history. They injected two patients suffering from progressive blindness with embryonic stem cells. The results may forever change the way we view and treat disease. The results of the study were published last month. More than six months after treatment, the patients are doing well with no adverse effects, the progressive blindness is halted, and the patients have seen small improvements in their vision. There are plans for 24 additional patients to receive the same treatment.
The success of regenerative medicine could have far-reaching implications. While the use of embryonic stem cells is laden with controversy, much speculation surrounds the possibility of regenerations for a multitude of applications, like spinal cord injuries, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s, where replacing damaged cells with healthy new ones could reverse damage and leave patients healthy and whole.
Researchers hope these results encourage the waning interest in the field by providing the hard data and solid results that has been elusive thus far.
This clinical trial was the first of its kind, the very first time that embryonic stem cells were transplanted into a living patient…and the stakes were high. One potential danger was that the cells would go wild in the new environment, replicating into uncontrollable growth patterns like a cancer, leaving tumors as they migrated through the body. For 78 year old Sure Freeman, whose world was narrowing and going dark from age-related macular degeneration, it was a gamble she was willing to take. The purpose of the trial was to determine the safety of the procedure, but what the patients got was so much more than dry data.
There is no sign of cell migration, clustering, or any abnormal behavior from the new cells. In fact, the cells integrated into the eye…and began functioning by improving the performance of damage photoreceptors. This has brightened Sue’s vision and considerably improved her eyesight.
The other patient in the study is a 51 year old graphic artist named Rosemary who suffers from Stargardt’s macular dystrophy, a condition that creates a blind spot in the center of her vision. She has noticed a marked improvement in her vision and a reduction in the size of the blind spot in the center.
Even with the encouraging results, researchers are approaching the remaining trial patients with caution. Only a few will be treated at a time, so any potential side effects can be monitored and minimized. The important takeaway from this study is that the cells were successfully transplanted, integrated, and functional in the new environment…without rejection, tumors, or side effects. It’s a small but important crack that could open floodgates to new approaches to very difficult problems.
Knowing the potential benefits of embryonic stem cell research, do you object? Let us know what you think.