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London project to cure blindness

The first patients to receive a new treatment derived from stem cells for people with wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD) have regained reading vision.

Results from a clinical study suggest the treatment is safe and effective. The study is a major milestone for the London Project to Cure Blindness and could lead to an ‘off-the-shelf’ treatment within five years. The results of this ground-breaking clinical study, published in Nature Biotech, described the implantation of a specially engineered patch of retinal pigment epithelium cells derived from stem cells to treat people with sudden severe sight loss from wet AMD.

It is hoped that it will also help treat dry AMD in the future. It’s the first description of a complete engineered tissue that has been successfully used in this way.

The study is a major milestone for the London Project to Cure Blindness, a partnership between Moorfields Eye Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology, and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR).

AMD is the most common cause of sight loss in the UK, and can lead to a rapid loss of central (reading) vision. The two patients who underwent the procedure, a woman in her early 60s and a man in his 80s, had the severe form of the condition (wet AMD) and declining vision. The study investigated whether the diseased cells at the back the patients’ affected eye could be replenished using the stem cell based patch. A specially engineered surgical tool was used to insert the patch under the retina in the affected eye of each patient in an operation lasting one to two hours. The patients were monitored for 12 months and reported improvements to their vision. They went from not being able to read at all even with glasses, to reading 60-80 words per minute with normal reading glasses.

An ongoing follow up study, also funded by the NIHR HTA alongside Moorfields Eye Charity, Fight for Sight, and the International Glaucoma Association, will provide more information on the long term effects. This follow-up study is due to conclude in 2020.