Stem Cell Transplants May Prevent Devastating Eye Diseases

10/19/09  Portland, Ore.

OHSU’S Casey Eye Institute discovery has potential to lead to treatment for millions of macular degeneration patients

Stem cells transplanted into the back of the eye mayprevent devastating eye diseases such as macular degeneration.

Researchers at OHSU's Casey Eye Institute and StemCells Inc., have demonstrated that placing human neural stem cells in the back of the eye of rats protects cone photoreceptors in the eye from progressive degeneration and preserves eyesight. The results were presented at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in Chicago today and were selected from thousands of other papers to be released to the press.

"This could have a huge impact on people with macular degeneration," said Raymond Lund, Ph.D., professor of ophthalmology at Casey Eye Institute. "There are drugs to treat people with wet macular degeneration – caused by leaking blood vessels invading the eye – but no effective treatments for earlier forms of macular degeneration. We are looking at catching people who are at risk for developing the disease and hopefully sustaining their vision and preventing catastrophic loss of sight."

The researchers also discovered that the stem cell transplants are safe and long lasting. The results will help researchers gain FDA approval for clinical trials within the next few years, Lund says.

"These results demonstrate how the clinicians and scientists at Casey Eye Institute are focused on developing innovative treatments for diseases currently without effective therapies," said David Wilson, M.D., professor and chairman of ophthalmology and director of the Casey Eye Institute. "Macular degeneration is a disease in which cell therapies of this type would be a major advance in treating the growing number of patients at risk for vision loss.It's exciting to have the potential to prevent vision loss from macular degeneration, which affects some 7 million Americans and millions of other people worldwide."

Age-related macular degeneration is a major retinal disorder that results in progressive loss of vision. The macula is the part of the eye that allows people to see fine detail. People with macular degeneration gradually lose the ability to see objects clearly and perform ordinary tasks such as reading and driving.

The type of human stem cells used in this research already is FDA approved for clinical trials in the treatment of Batten disease. "It will be extremely useful if we can use these stem cells in more than one clinical application," Lund said. "That would be like having an engine that works in several different models of car."