Stem cell trial: have scientists discovered a cure for blindness?

Surgeons carry out pioneering stem cell transplant to treat age-related macular degeneration

(Image credit: AFP/Getty Images)

British surgeons have successfully carried out a groundbreaking operation using human stem cells that could help cure the most common form of blindness.

The method is being hailed as a "great step forward" in the treatment of age-related macular degeneration, a condition that affects 600,000 people in the UK.

What is age-related macular degeneration (AMD)?

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AMD is an eye condition that leads to the loss of central vision, typically in both eyes. It is the leading cause of sight loss in the western world and while peripheral vision remains intact, reading becomes difficult, colours appear less vibrant and people's faces are difficult to recognise.

There are two types of AMD: wet and dry. Dry AMD is the most common, with vision loss occurring gradually. Wet AMD is rarer and more aggressive and occurs as a result of defective blood vessels in the eye. Vision can deteriorate within days, says the NHS.

How does this new treatment work?

The surgery involved transplanting eye cells known as retinal pigment epithelium, which have been derived from embryonic stem cells, says Reuters. A woman suffering from wet AMD was the first of ten patients to undergo the pioneering surgery during a trial at London's Moorfields Eye Hospital.

"The reason we are so excited is that we have been able to grow a perfect copy of the layer [of cells] and transplant it," said surgeon Professor Lyndon Da Cruz. "We are going right back to the roots of the disease."

Will it cure blindness?

The first surgery was successfully carried out last month and surgeons say there have been no complications to date. "This has the potential to be a treatment rather than being theoretical proof," said Da Cruz. However, it will take months before surgeons know how much of the patient's vision has returned.

"It is early days yet," Clara Eaglen of the Royal National Institute of Blind People told Sky News. "But this development does show that stem cells can be successfully transplanted into the eye, which is a great step forward."

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