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Embryonic stem cell treatment for blindness

Exciting new clinical trials are to take place at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London, with British surgeons leading the way into a possible new therapy for degenerative blindness using human embryonic stem cells.

The process will involve injecting 50,000 to 200,000 stem cells behind the retina of patients suffering from Stargardt’s Macular Dystrophy disease using a fine needle. This permanent eye disease is an inherited condition that causes progressive sight loss, usually from an early age. Vision for these sufferers is mostly impaired in the centre of the visual field, leaving some limited vision around the periphery.

Twelve patients will undergo the preliminary procedure, which at this stage is a trial to evaluate its safety. If it proves to be safe then the numbers of stem cells will increase to assess effectiveness. It has not yet been predicted if the effect of these stem cells will stop the deterioration of the disease or if they have the capability to reverse the sight loss completely.

A successful treatment would promote the growth of the stem cells to replace the degenerated retinal cells, re-establishing a healthy and functional retina. It is hoped that this will restore sight.

The therapy however, is viewed as somewhat controversial amongst the public. It involves the use of cells from embryos that have been grown within a laboratory, that have the potential to differentiate into any one of hundreds of different cells types.

Objections to embryonic stem cells may be due to religion or ethics. With the subject of human rights being frequently questioned, and the greater good ‘means to an end’ attitude not always easily accepted.

Although it is currently very early days in terms of the potential of this treatment, it allows excited anticipation of progressing within this medical field.

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