Old age is bliss. There’s a nest egg in the bank account and nothing needs to be done but spoil the grandchildren and watch Judge Judy. But, like a bad episode of the Twilight Zone, age-related macular degeneration (AMD) sets in and eyesight begins to fade until the grandchildren all look the same and the television turns into a bright looking radio. Such a cruel fate may soon be avoided if the London Project is successful in using stem cells to cure age-related blindness. It seems that science has again found itself at odds with humor, eventually making extinct jokes about old-people’s driving habits.
Age-related macular degeneration is a common ailment among the elderly, affecting 10 percent of the population within the ages of 65 to 74. As the body ages, the support structure for the rods and cones within the eye, called retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells, begin to thin and eventually cause the light-sensitive cells to die, leading to blindness. The London Project (a consortium of scientists from the University College in London, Sheffield University, and the Moorfields Eye Hospital) thinks they have a cure for this degenerative disease, set to pass clinical trials in 3 years time, by injecting RPE cells back into the eye.
This is accomplished by using embryonic stem cells to create new RPE cells in the laboratory and then surgically transplanting them into the patient’s eye. The new cells will augment the already existing RPE cell network and thus restore vision. Scientists at the London Project are hoping that, once perfected, RPE therapy will be a commonplace outpatient procedure, lasting only about 45 minutes.
The project already has the backing of Pfizer, which would be able to supply doctors and clinics with a constant supply of RPE cells, and 4 million British Pounds ($6.12 million) of financing from an anonymous donor within the United States. Clinical trials are expected to be complete in Europe by 2011, with the procedure being offered to the general public shortly thereafter. Due to the stickiness of the stem cell debate in the United States, it is unclear on how much longer it would take before the procedure is available in North America.
The cure for blindness is not necessarily a novel quest. Here at Singularity Hub, we have reported on some technological breakthroughs that may lead to restored sight, including gene therapy, implantable telescopes, and bionic eyes. But stem cells are seen by many as the golden cure to a great number of diseases. This stem cell based clinical trial goes to show that this is not just a futuristic fix for that which ails humanity, but a tangible reality that may be commonplace in a scant few years time.
Stem cells are here; there’s no doubt about it. Over the next few years, as theoretical claims turn into scientific evidence, it will be hard to deny the life-extending power that lies in these formative cells. Currently, though, stem cells are mired in an ethical battle that extends beyond the laboratory bench and into the halls of congress. While Europe may not have any qualms with stem cell therapy, we here in the United States may need to be patient, for the only thing congress has ever done quickly was lull its constituents to sleep.