By Rob Stein and David Brown
For the first time, an experimental treatment made from human embryonic stem cells has shown evidence of helping someone, partially restoring sight to two people suffering from slowly progressing forms of blindness.
Although the purpose of the experiment was to test the safety of stem cells injected into the eye, both patients “had measurable improvement in their vision that persisted through the duration of the study,” said Robert Lanza, chief scientific officer at Advanced Cell Technology, the Massachusetts biotech company that sponsored the closely watched experiment.
The operations in July on two Southern California women yielded practical results. One of them no longer needs a large magnifying glass to read and can reportedly thread a needle. The other has begun to go shopping on her own.
Reported online in the Lancet on Monday, the project used the cells under highly favorable conditions not likely to exist with many diseases.
The cells were transplanted into the eye, an organ in which the chance of immune rejection is low. The complex, 10-layer architecture of the retina was intact, so the cells were not asked to perform a heroic act of reconstruction. The researchers were able to monitor progress — and watch for complications — in real time by looking into the eyes.
Lanza cautioned that the findings are preliminary, the improvements could disappear and complications could emerge. Nevertheless, he thinks the two cases will provide useful lessons for the field.