Macular degeneration affects more than 10 million people in the U.S., and is the most common cause of vision loss. It is caused by the deterioration of the middle of the retina, called the macula. The macula focuses central vision and controls our ability to see objects in fine detail, read, recognize colors and faces, and drive a car. Until now, the disease has been considered incurable.
An octogenarian with the condition is now the first person to receive successful treatment with induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. The progression of the woman’s macular degeneration was arrested by new retinal cells made in the lab. Unlike embryonic stem cells, iPS cells can be created from regular adult cells. In this case, the cells used to repair the damaged retina from macular degeneration came from the woman’s skin.
The team at Kobe, Japan’s RIKEN Laboratory for Retinal Regeneration, led by Masayo Takahashi, created iPS cells from the patient’s skin cells. Then, they encouraged them to form cells to patch the retinal pigment epithelium. These cells help nourish and support the retina, allowing it to capture the light the eye needs to see.
Once the cells were transformed, the team used them to make a slither measuring 1 by 3 millimeters. This was the patch they used to replace the diseased tissue removed from the patient’s retina. Their aim was to stop the degeneration and save her sight. The results show that the procedure was technically a success: although her vision did not improve, the degeneration stopped.
A possible concern about this treatment, however, is that creating new tissues from stem cells could cause genetic mutations, which might in turn lead to cancer. While more research in this area — and its possible applications — is needed, in the case of the patient at RIKEN, there have been no signs of cancer or any other complications.