Stem Cells Get Closer To Curing Macular Degeneration

Stem Cells Get Closer To Curing Macular Degeneration

Stem cells are the buzz words you have probably been hearing about for years, and for good reason. Stem cells have been rising in the ranks as a viable treatment for many serious ailments leaving many other “band-aid” approaches in the dust. Currently, stem cells may be a reality in treating macular degeneration on a more mainstream level. Once scientists figured out how to generate stem cells beyond using controversial fetal donors, research escalated. 

Nobel Prize-winning stem cell researcher Shinya Yamanaka and James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (the first scientist to grow stem cells from human embryos outside the body) developed induced pluripotent stem cells (IPS). These stem cells are taken from blood or skin and re-programmed to their embryonic state so destroying embryos to produce stem cells is no longer needed. 

Now, stem cells get closer to curing macular degeneration one of the leading causes of blindness across the globe today. Human trials are underway and you may very well soon see (literally) the regenerative medicine therapy of stem cells changing the field of optics like never before. IPS, re-branded as IPSC (the “C” adding “cells” to the title), may stop blindness in its tracks as well as increase the reality of regenerative medicine taking the place of prosthesis installations. Just think, no more threat of macular degeneration, glaucoma, or cataracts as well as joint replacements or even donating organs. 

The future of medicine is in the hands of stem cell research and if progress keeps going the way it is going, diseases like macular degeneration could be a disease of the past.

Third Round of Human Trials

Dr. Masayo Takahashi, runs the Takahashi lab at Riken’s Center for Biological Development in Kobe, Japan. Since the Nobel Prize winning work of Shinya Yamanaka in 2006, the Japanese government has been aggressively supporting IPSC research. Although many other scientists in the optic community feel this research may still be too risky, Dr. Takahashi’s team is already starting its third round of human trials. Interestingly, Dr. David Gamm who has taken the helm of James Thomson’s research, also at UW-Madison, supports Dr. Takahashi’s work just as Thomson and Yamanaka did over 13 years prior. 

As reported by UW-Madison, Dr. Gamm explained, 

“Injecting an experimental treatment into a blind eye carries a relatively low risk,…Eyes are encapsulated, so wayward cells likely wouldn’t travel to other parts of the body. If something goes wrong, an eye can be removed. Doctors wanting to see how transplanted cells are behaving can dilate the pupils and look — no MRI or PET scan required.”

According to the Japanese Times, 

“Since 2014, Takahashi’s team has carried out six clinical surgeries using stem cells derived from iPS cells. Takahashi said that in all six operations “the survival of the cells” succeeded…Takahashi said a third round of clinical studies will begin after her team submits applications to the relevant medical bodies,”

As Japanese researchers continue to forge ahead with IPSC research, American researchers like Dr. David Gamm, ramp up similar research in the United States. 

United States IPSC Research also on AMD Cure Horizon

In addition to researchers from Japan and many other parts of the world increasing stem cell applications for macular degeneration, the United States has stepped up as well. 

MD Magazine reported that,

“A team of investigators from the National Eye Institute recently published a study suggesting that they have developed a method for injecting specialized stem cells to regenerate damaged retinal epithelial cells in the eyes of patients with advanced dry age-related macular degeneration (dry AMD)—and that it is ready for clinical trials in humans…The team harvested CD34+ cells from blood of 3 different human patients experiencing AMD, and turned them into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). They created a bank of iPSCs from these cells on which they tested and optimized methods for coaxing the cells to differentiate into functional cells that that could be safely inserted into the retinal pigment epithelia (RPE).”

Currently, the process to grow iPSCs in a lab takes upwards of ten weeks which many feel will make the treatment very expensive. However, as more testing and funding continue to advance at such rapid speeds, like many other new therapies, the cost will stabilize and insurance companies may also get on board with coverage. 

According to Kapil Bharti, PhD, head of the NEI Unit on Ocular and Stem Cell Translational Research and lead author on the study,

“Induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cell technology has been around for over a decade,..Cell replacement therapies are becoming a reality and in the near future will become a common practice.”

The combination of domestic and international research for macular degeneration stem cell therapy is a race toward the brass ring. Those who prove successfully that IPSC therapy is the actual cure science has been chasing for decades will certainly prevail on many fronts. However, it seems that collaboration is the best approach. 

Japan Times reported that according to Dr. Takahashi,

“It’s a very strong society and many doctors are developing cell therapy, [but] The ophthalmology community doesn’t know (enough) about the iPS cells, and they think this is risky…One way around this, Takahashi believes, would be for greater collaboration among doctors, scientists, researchers and the pharmaceutical industry.” 

It is important to note that although this research is finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, many practitioners are trying to take advantage of it before the proper studies are completed. This has lead to several reports of dangerous results.

Avoid Desperate Mistakes

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) looms large in the United States elderly community. It is a dark cloud right up there with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and cancer. As stem cell research becomes more popular many are desperate to avoid or even reverse AMD degeneration. As a result, some patients put themselves in harm’s way by seeking any practitioner that advertises stem cell regeneration for AMD. 

The journal Genes & Diseases reported in 2017 a study titled, ‘iPSC-Based Treatment Of Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD): The Path To Success Requires More Than Blind Faith’. This study cited irresponsible, premature, unsuccessful IPSC treatment attempts some researchers have made at the expense of their patients. 

It was stated that, 

“…three elderly AMD patients seeking help shortly after they had received unapproved treatment with their own fat tissue-derived “stem cells” in third party clinics. All three patients were treated in both eyes, and all experienced acute vision loss due to serious retinal complications, such as bleeding, retinal detachment, and proliferative vitreoretinopathy [disease of the retina], suggesting a fibrotic [thickening and scarring] proliferation of the ill-defined “stem cells”.”

This is one example of the many third party clinics that are falsely advertising and scaring the public into possibly avoiding IPSC therapy once it is ready to enter the mainstream. If it sounds too good to be true and is not backed by a reputable organization, don’t be fooled by subpar attempts.

As stem cells target curing macular degeneration, it won’t be long before blindness becomes as rare as smallpox. This research is not ten years away, it is now closer than ever before.