A Glimpse into the Future: Stem Cells and Age-Related Macular Degeneration

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A Look at What’s Ahead: Stem Cells Give Hope for Macular Degeneration

Macular degeneration causes serious vision loss in many older adults. But new stem cell therapies that replace damaged cells in the eye could help bring back sight lost to this disease. The Stem Cell Medical Center, located in Antigua, leads the way in developing these innovative treatments for patients from around the world.

What is macular degeneration?

The macula is the sensitive central part of the retina at the back of the eye. It lets you see fine details clearly and do tasks like reading and driving. Macular degeneration harms the macula, causing blurry or distorted central vision. Straight lines can look wavy or broken.

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the most common cause of vision loss in people over 50. It’s estimated that 196 million people globally have AMD. That number is expected to double by 2050 as populations continue to get older.

There are two forms of AMD:

  • Wet AMD (10-15% of cases) happens when abnormal blood vessels grow under the macula and leak. This damages the macula and pulls it away from its base.
  • Dry AMD (80-90% of cases) is linked to a buildup of fatty deposits called drusen under the macula. This makes cells in the eye called retinal pigment epithelium (RPE), which support retina cells that detect light, stop working. When RPE cells die off, photoreceptor cells also start to decline, leading to gradual vision loss.

While doctors understand wet AMD is caused by leaking vessels, the triggers for dry AMD have been more of a mystery until now.

Unlocking the Secrets of Dry AMD with Stem Cells

Stem cells offer an exciting way to study dry AMD. Researchers can take a patient’s skin or blood cells and reprogram them into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). These stem cells can change into any type of cell. Scientists can then make the iPSCs turn into RPE cells that genetically match each patient.

Having access to RPE cells from many dry AMD patients lets scientists research exactly how the disease progresses. For example, the New York Stem Cell Foundation Research Institute uses stem cell technology to create “living windows” into how AMD damages RPE cells.

Studying the diseased cells helps identify the initial triggers for AMD onset. This could uncover new drug targets or ways to prevent AMD. The institute is also building a large bank of AMD patient RPE cells to analyze how genetics impact the disease. This research, done with the National Eye Institute, could lead to predicting AMD risk and personalizing treatments.

Replacing Lost Cells with Stem Cell Transplants

In the future, stem cells may not just study AMD, but cure it. Cell replacement therapy for dry AMD involves making customized RPE cells from a patient’s stem cells to replace diseased ones killed off by the disease.

Animal studies show stem cell-derived RPE cells can integrate into the retina and revive photoreceptor cells that detect light, restoring visual function. The Stem Cell Medical Center partners with others to develop this promising treatment for AMD patients.

First, a patient’s skin or blood cells are reprogrammed into iPSCs. Next, the iPSCs are changed into healthy, working RPE cells genetically matched to that person. These new RPE cells could then be transplanted into the patient’s eye to replace damaged ones and preserve vision.

Early clinical trials found RPE transplants improved vision in AMD patients. Larger studies are still needed, but many experts believe this stem cell therapy could be an effective approach as it goes through clinical testing.

The Future of Stem Cells for AMD

While replacing RPE cells could halt AMD progression, it cannot restore vision already lost from photoreceptor damage. To treat late-stage disease, researchers must also replace photoreceptors. This is more difficult but new studies show promise.

Much work remains to bring AMD stem cell therapies from the lab to the clinic. The Stem Cell Medical Center gives patients access to the latest approved treatments in registered clinical trials. Unproven stem cell injections can be unsafe. But the rapid progress gives hope that stem cell transplants may one day restore sight for millions with macular degeneration worldwide.