Surgeons in London have completed a pioneering human embryonic stem cell operation in a continuous trial to find a cure for blindness for several patients. The process was performed on a woman aged 60 at Moorfields Eye Hospital. It entailed “seeding” a very small patch with specialised eye cells and implanting it in the back of the retina.

The London Project to Cure Blindness was established a decade ago to attempt and reverse vision loss in patients with age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Ten patients with the wet form of AMD will undergo the procedure. All will have endured a sudden loss of vision as a result of faulty blood vessels in the eye. They’ll be monitored for a year to check that the treatment is safe and if their vision improves. The girl who had been the patient – and does not wish to be named – had the operation.

Prof Peter Coffey, of the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology, who’s co-leading the London Job, said: “We won’t know until at least Christmas how great her vision is and how long that may be preserved, but we could see how the cells are there under the retina where they should be and they appear to be fit.”

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The cells being employed form the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) – the layer of cells that nourish and support the photoreceptors in the macula – the seeing part of the eye. In macular degeneration, the RPE cells die, and consequently the eye becomes operate. Patients using AMD lose their central vision, which becomes distorted and blurred. The cells used in the operation were initially derived from a given early embryo – smaller than a pinhead – that has the potential to turn into any cell in the body.

Prof Lyndon Da Cruz of Moorfields Eye Hospital, that carried out the operation, stated: “This is truly a corrective project. Before it’s been impossible to replace missing cells.

“If we can provide the surface of cells that are missing and give them their function this would be of tremendous benefit to individuals with the sight-threatening condition”.

If the treatment is successful, the scientists say, it would also help patients in the first stages of dry AMD, and could potentially halt their vision loss. AMD affects more than 600,000 people in the united kingdom and is the leading cause of sight loss in the developed world. It is projected that one in every 10 individuals over 65 has a certain degree of AMD. The team at Moorfields is operating in partnership with the pharmaceutical firm Pfizer, which is financing the trial. It is not known how far the one-off surgical treatment may cost, even though the scientists involved point out that treating and dealing with sight reduction is a massive burden on the NHS.

It’s not the first time that scientists have used stem cells derived from human embryos in patients with sight loss. In 2012, patients with Stargardt’s disease – that contributes to progression deterioration of eyesight – were injected with embryonic stem cells in a safety trial carried out in the US and UK – that also included a team at Moorfields.

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