New Stem Cell Therapy Offers Hope for Age-Related Macular Degeneration Patients

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Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the leading cause of vision loss among people over 50. As the population ages, the number of people affected by AMD is expected to grow. Exciting research into stem cell therapies may offer new hope for AMD patients.

Understanding AMD and Its Effects

AMD affects the macula, the central part of the retina responsible for sharp, straight-ahead vision. As Professor Linden de Cruz explains, the macula is a very small, but critically important part of the eye. He states, “It has a devastating effect because it’s able to knock out all your useful vision in a relatively small area.”

AMD causes blurry or distorted central vision. Faces become difficult to recognize, reading becomes challenging, and activities like watching TV and driving become impossible. As patient, Douglas Tait shares that AMD took away his ability to drive and work. He says, “Nothing is clear. It’s sort of, I wouldn’t describe it as blurred, but it’s not crisp as it ought to be.”

Developing a Regenerative Stem Cell Treatment

The nerve cells in the retina do not regenerate on their own once they are damaged. As Professor de Cruz explains, “Currently, we have no way of replacing the cells.” This makes AMD very difficult to treat.

Exciting new research is focused on using stem cells to regenerate damaged retinal cells. In the first phase of research, scientists used laboratory-grown stem cell patches that were surgically implanted into patients’ retinas. This improved reading vision dramatically in the two patients treated so far.

Now, researchers are working on more advanced stem cell treatments that inject individual stem cells precisely into the damaged retinal layers. This requires highly specialized robotic technology.

The Robotic Breakthrough

Delivering individual stem cells into the delicate retina requires robotic precision beyond human capabilities. Professor Christos Bergeles states that the surgery is like “cutting the human hair ten times, and then you need to go with one of those tools in between those layers while the patient is awake. And that’s something that humans just cannot do. That’s where robots come in.”

His team is developing miniature flexible robots that can navigate inside the eye and deposit stem cells with incredible nano-scale precision. The goal is to create a “microscale human hand” inside the eye that can mimic a surgeon’s movements.

A Collaborative Vision

This stem cell therapy for AMD is a collaboration between ophthalmologists, stem cell researchers, bioengineers, and roboticists. Professor de Cruz says, “We are looking at various strategies to one, grow these nerves or create these nerves in the laboratory and strategies to transplant them back into the eye at the right time. In the course of the disease, you can see in this picture we have the optic nerve. This is a normal structure in the blood vessels of the eye, but next to it in the area that I talked about called the macula.”

The team hopes to be ready for human clinical trials of the robotic stem cell delivery system within five years.

Hope for AMD Patients

This research offers tremendous hope to AMD patients. As Douglas Tait shares, “Hopefully, one day it will actually solve the problem.” He looks forward to the day when his daughter, who has early signs of AMD, can benefit from the treatment.

Professor de Cruz calls the initial trial results “one of the early breakthroughs.” He says, “The concept that you could grow a piece of the body and put it in after the disease has taken away the function, see the function return safely is a dream.”