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STUDY: Embryonic Stem Cell Treatment Restores Sight in Patients With ‘Wet’ Age-Related Macular Degeneration

A scientific researcher manipulates drops of embryonic stem cells in a laboratory, at 'Hospital do Coracao' heart institute, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on 5 March, 2008. Brazil's Federal Supreme Court will decide today on the continuity of the stem cells research, after Roman Catholich church officials and anti-abortion groups urged to ban it, given that the stem cells extraction entails the destruction of the embryo. AFP PHOTO/Mauricio LIMA (Photo credit should read MAURICIO LIMA/AFP/Getty Images)

Sorry, Star Trek fans, looks like Geordi LaForge’s VISOR (Visual Instrument and Sight Organ Replacement) will remain the stuff of science fiction. A team of medical doctors in the United Kingdom have figured out another way to restore sight by using embryonic stem cells.

On Star Trek: The Next Generation, Geordi’s congenital blindness was partially returned through technological wizardry in the form of a metallic band across his eyes. The band delivered “enhanced vision” to his brain in the form of a bandwidth of light frequencies including visible, infrared, and ultraviolet. Many times during the course of the show, the ship’s chief surgeon, Dr. Beverly Crusher, suggested ways of giving Geordi normal human vision via futuristic bio-medical discoveries.

Once again, modern science is turning Star Trek into reality. A team of medical doctors in the United Kingdom has successfully restored sight to two elderly people suffering from age-related macular degeneration using stem cells.

Does this mean that blindness will soon be a thing of the past? Possibly.

Age-related macular degeneration (or AMD) is the fourth most common form of blindness in the world, where an important group of cells in the retina of the eye are lost over time. There are two different types of AMD called “dry” and “wet,” with wet AMD being much less common.

The “wet” form gets its name from the abnormal growth and accumulation of blood vessels in the retina that eventually leads to blood leakage and irreversible damage to the retinal cells in the area. The two elderly individuals that successfully responded to the stem cell therapy in this study were afflicted with the “wet” form of AMD with a high degree of severity.

Here, the restoration of sight was accomplished through the use of embryonic stem cells. The promise of stem cell therapy has been circulating in popular media for several decades, and now it seems that the potential of this therapeutic approach is finally coming to fruition.

Embryonic stem cells are essentially “blank cells” with no specialized function, but when given specific “cues” will change into certain cell types; for example, nerve cells, heart cells, muscle cells, or fat cells to name a few. Thus, the strategy emerged to coax a population of stem cells to adopt the properties of the retinal cells absent after AMD.

Therapies based on embryonic stem cells have been engulfed in controversy for many years due to the politics of abortion, since the cells are collected from fetal tissue. Moreover, the genetic modification of stem cells for targeted therapies has also become embroiled in debates over human cloning. The majority of stem cells intended for medical use are harvested from an individual’s bone marrow.

Indeed, bone marrow transplants are often employed to replenish cancer patients’ supply of healthy cells after the toxic effects of chemotherapy and are the most commonly used kind of stem cell therapy for more than three decades. Scientists and physicians have reported the significant potential for stem cell treatments to ameliorate multiple conditions, including but not limited to: wound healing, neurodegenerative diseases, heart disease, spinal cord injuries, brain damage, and as shown here, reversing blindness.

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    Dr. Paul Lawrence is a research scientist specializing in molecular genetics and microbiology, who c... keep reading