Stem cell research at the University of California Los Angeles' Jules Stein Eye Institute has led to a limited clinical trial that has produced astounding results for two patients with a form of macular degeneration that had progressed to the point of causing near blindness. A short time after receiving stem cell injections the two women began to regain vision, enabling them to function independently in ways they couldn't before the procedure. The story was broadcast on NPR and other media sources with some restraint (it was a small study, with only two patients so far), but obvious excitement (it worked!). On the part of the researchers, the trial procedure held limited expectations for success, in part because the quantity of stem cells they utilized was fairly small. The results were all the more wondrous for coming as a real surprise, not least of all for the patients themselves.
Ophthalmologist Steven Schwartz of the Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA performed the procedures last summer, and the article documenting the results has just been published in The Lancet. Another patient in the trial (which will ultimately include 24 subjects) was treated by Dr. Schwartz just last week, and is recovering well. The stem cells are provided by Advanced Cell Technology (ACT), the company sponsoring the trial study. ACT begins with embryonic stem cells and cultures them to create the specific retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) stem cells injected just below the retinae of the study patients, all of whom suffer from Stargardt's macular distrophy disease or dry age-related macular degeneration, which are two of the most common causes of acquired blindness.