For people who are blind, the thought of a treatment to restore their sight may seem like an impossible dream. But it may eventually become a reality after scientists last year were able to restore the eyesight of a blind person. The treatment works by replacing those cells in the eye know as retinal cells that have been damaged or worn out from diseases such as macular degeneration. For the elderly in particular, macular degeneration is a common concern as it can lead to enormous loss of vision in one or both eyes.
What is Macular Degeneration?
Macular degeneration is a top cause of vision loss in older adults. This is the most common illness that results in blindness in the elderly or for those people who lose their eyesight due to diabetes. It wrecks havoc on a person’s central vision. This kind of vision is important for helping us to see objects clearly as well as helping us to perform basic, everyday tasks such as reading a book or driving a car.
When macular degeneration strikes, it affects the area of the eye that is important for allowing us to see fine details. The disease may progress very slowly so that a person barely notices any changes at all. Or, it might progress rapidly, causing significant vision loss.
Stem Cell Therapies
Those who might benefit the most from this stem cell treatment are people who suffer from macular degeneration. But researchers think it could work for other kinds of vision loss as well.
How it Works
To perform the stem cell transplant, researchers initially tested things out in blind mice. They injected stem cells into the rear of the eye. The stem cells were able to replace the damaged photoreceptors, which are small, important cells found in the retina. These photoreceptors are vital to your ability to see things and they are very sensitive to light.
Interestingly enough, previous studies using stem cells had failed to restore sight. One reason for the problem relates to the choice of stem cells. In the most recent study, researchers used stem cells that were more mature than the ones previous researchers had used. The choice proved successful as the stem cells developed into photoreceptors and were able to join with the nerves that lead to the brain.
Researchers hope to see these kinds of transplants happening on a greater scale in approximately ten years. With many patients suffering from diseases in the eye that cause photoreceptors to die, this research offers a way to provide photoreceptor transplantation, helping to restore eyesight for many people around the world. The use of a patient’s own cells also avoids the potential for immunological rejection, a threat that comes with other types of treatment.
Experts do still tend to warn that we should not assume this study means we automatically have a cure for blindness. It is just one case study and there are still a number of challenges and risks that come with the treatment. But it does offer hope for people who are blind from macular degeneration that they may one day have their eyesight again.