Sunday, April 19, 2009

Blind to Be Cured with Stem Cells

April 19, 2009

Blind to be cured with stem cells

BRITISH scientists have developed the world's first stem cell

therapy to cure the most common cause of blindness. Surgeons

predict it will become a routine, one-hour procedure that will be

generally available in six or seven years' time.

The treatment involves replacing a layer of degenerated cells with

new ones created from embryonic stem cells. It was pioneered by

scientists and surgeons from the Institute of Ophthalmology at

University College London and Moorfields eye hospital.

This week Pfizer, the world's largest pharmaceutical research

company, will announce its financial backing to bring the therapy

to patients.

The treatment will tackle age-related macular degeneration

(AMD), the most common cause of blindness. It affects more

than 500,000 Britons and the number is forecast to increase

significantly as people live longer. The disease involves the loss

of eye cells.

Under the new treatment, embryonic stem cells are transformed

into replicas of the missing cells. They are then placed on an

artificial membrane which is inserted in the back of the retina.

Tom Bremridge, chief executive of the Macular Disease Society,

said: "This is a huge step forward for patients. We are extremely

pleased that the big guns have become involved, because, once

this treatment is validated, it will be made available to a huge

volume of patients."

Embryonic stem cells have the ability to develop into all types of

body tissue. Their use is controversial, however, because it

involves the destruction of human embryos.

Laboratory trials completed by the British team have

demonstrated that stem cells can prevent blindness in rats with a

similar disease to AMD. They have also successfully tested

elements of the technology in pigs.

The team is led by Professor Pete Coffey, director of the London

Project to Cure Blindness, working alongside Lyndon da Cruz, a

surgeon at Moorfields.

Coffey said the treatment would take "less than an hour, so it

really could be considered as an outpatient procedure. We are

trying to get it out as a common therapy".

He welcomed Pfizer's agreement to manufacture the

membranes, saying: "This is a major development because of the

size of the partner. We need a big pharmaceutical company to

scale it up.

"We have nearly 14m people within Europe with AMD. This will

ensure that the therapy gets through to clinical trials in a safe and

effective manner."

Professor Peng Khaw, director of the Biomedical Research

Centre at Moorfields and the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology,

added: "This shows that stem cell therapy is coming of age. It

offers great hope for many sufferers around the world who

cannot be treated with conventional treatment." He added: "All my

patients say to me is, 'When will this stem cell treatment be

ready? I want it now'."

Pfizer's role would be crucial in bringing production of the

membranes to an industrial level.

The team is applying for regulatory approval for trials from the

Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, the

Human Tissue Authority and the gene therapy advisory


The clinical trial, due within two years, is expected to be the

second in the world to use embryonic stem cells on humans. The

first, on patients with spinal cord injuries, will start this year in


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