Stem cell repair kit for glaucoma could mean a treatment for the most common cause of blindness
Important breakthrough: One in ten glaucoma sufferers go blind, due to late diagnosis, drugs not working or the disease being particularly severe (file picture)
A treatment for one of the most common causes of blindness could soon be available.
British researchers have used stem cells to heal the damage caused by glaucoma.
The treatment has only been tested on rats, but scientists say it could be tested on humans by 2015 and in widespread use four years later.
At present one in ten glaucoma sufferers go blind, due to late diagnosis, drugs not working or the disease being particularly severe.
Researchers at University College London took healthy stem cells – ‘master’ cells capable of turning into other types of cell and widely seen as a repair kit for the body – from human eyes.
They used a cocktail of chemicals to turn them into retinal ganglion cells – those that die in glaucoma. They then injected these into the eyes of rats with glaucoma-like damage.
After just four weeks, the cells had connected with existing nerve cells, and the animals’ eyes worked 50 per cent better, the journal Stem Cells Translational Medicine reports.
Researcher Dr Astrid Limb, who was part-funded by the Medical Research Council, said: ‘Although this research is still a long way from the clinic, it is a significant step towards our ultimate goal of finding a cure for glaucoma and other related conditions.
‘The human eye is actually very
efficient. We can still have fairly good vision with very few
functioning retinal nerve cells, which is why many glaucoma patients
don’t show symptoms until it is too late to treat the underlying cause
of their vision loss.
‘If we can restore even a small number
of retinal ganglion cells through cell therapy, and achieve functioning
vision, we could potentially delay or even reverse blindness caused by
Glaucoma affects half a million Britons and 70million people around the world.
Researchers at University College London, pictured, took healthy stem cells – widely seen as a repair kit for the body – from human eyes
The researchers cautioned that their work is still at an early stage but added that even a small improvement on vision could make a big difference to quality of life.
In glaucoma, the build-up of pressure in the fluid in the eye damages cells in optic nerve, which ferries visual information to the brain for processing.
The researcher envisions the setting up of cell banks, similar to those used to store blood.
Other possibilities include to take healthy stem cells from a person’s own eye and developing a drug that triggers the development of replacement cells inside the eye, removing the need for any sort of op.
Professor Peng Khaw, the study’s co-author, said that even a small improvement in vision could transform lives.
He added: ‘Research like this gives hope to the many millions of people who have lost their sight due to glaucoma.’
Dr Dolores Conroy, of charity Fight for Sight, which also helped fund the research, said: ‘Currently, there is no way to restore the vision of the millions of people who have lost their sight through glaucoma.
‘This research shows that in the near future, it may be possible to use adult stem cells to preserve and restore sight lost through this devastating eye condition.
‘These results bring us another step closer to treating one of the leading causes of sight loss in the UK with stem cell therapy.’
Other research teams are trying to use stem cells to treat age-related macular degeneration, the most common form of blindness in the elderly and the first trials are already underway.