You probably know that macular degeneration is the leading cause of vision loss among the elderly. The disease affects the retina, a section of the eye that provides the kind of sharp, central vision needed to see objects clearly.
Indeed, age-related blindness affects between three and 10 million people in the U.S. alone, including some of your fellow Era readers.
So it’s no small news that a new type of treatment based on stem cells could provide a cure for blindness – and in the very near future.
As I explained on Tuesday, this is just one part of the exciting new field of adult stem cells.
A research team from Columbia University is responsible for this one.
Their findings center on induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. These are adult cells – culled from a patient’s own skin – that are tweaked to induce embryonic properties. Team members noted that, just like embryonic ones, IPS cells can grow to become a wide range of different human tissues and organs.
In this case, the transformed human skin cells were shown to restore vision in blind mice who suffered from macular degeneration.
In the study, team members got the IPS cells from a donor who is 53 years old. They added a cocktail of growth factors for use in the eyes of 34 blind mice that had a genetic mutation that caused their retinas to break down over time.
Control mice that got either saline or dormant cells showed no improvement in their vision. But mice that received the treatment had better vision that lasted well into old age.
“It’s often said that iPS transplantation will be important in the practice of medicine in some distant future,” noted team leader Dr. Stephen Tsang. “But our paper suggests the future is almost here. With eye diseases, I think we’re getting close to a scenario where a patient’s own skin cells are used to replace retina cells destroyed by disease or degeneration.”
Even better, the mice retinas took hold of the human cells without any problems and no major side effects.
“Importantly, we saw no tumors in any of the mice,” Dr. Tsang added. That “should allay one of the biggest fears people have about stem-cell transplants, that they will generate tumors.”
Though research teams have so far created thousands of distinct IPS lines, no humans have yet received these cells. But many doctors believe the human eye is the ideal testing ground for this type of therapy.
“The eye is a transparent and accessible part of the central nervous system,” Dr. Tsang said. “That’s a big advantage. We can put cells into the eye and monitor them every day with routine non-invasive clinical exams. And in the event of serious complications, removing the eye is not a life-threatening event.”
In fact, the Columbia team hopes to begin a clinical trial for macular degeneration in humans in the next three years.
Now you know why I’m so excited about this development… It’s more proof that the biotech world is now moving at warp speed to improve our lives. What was once science fiction is quickly becoming science fact.
Consider that work in these types of adult stem cells didn’t really get started until 2007. Now, just five years later, researchers are reporting a number of other discoveries that will change our lives. I don’t have space here to give you the details of all the new findings. So I’ll tell more about them in the final column of this three-part series. It will arrive next Tuesday. Stay tuned for that.
In the meantime, success here would no doubt be a boon, not only for the millions of seniors who could benefit from a safe, effective treatment for age-related vision loss… but for investors, too.
First, since the process worked in those early animal tests, the chance of success with humans is high. I believe it’s only a matter of time before someone perfects this process – or something similar – and brings it to market. I’ll be watching.
Second, and more to the point, this new approach avoids the controversy that surrounds embryonic stem cells. Many people in the U.S. find that area of science deeply troubling for a very simple reason – researchers often get embryonic stem cells from aborted fetuses.
A 2009 Gallup survey showed that 51% of Americans consider themselves “pro-life.” Right off the bat, any one opposed to abortion is almost certainly not going to invest in a firm using embryonic stem cells. Of course, others also believe this is a “slippery slope” that raises a host of ethical issues.
As investors, we want to find the type of tech that enjoys the widest market support because that will give us the greatest gains in the long run. Thus, I believe many will find the Columbia team’s approach is not only good science, it’s “moral” as well.
Third, I believe this type of tech is about to reach critical mass. As I explained on Tuesday, just this week, two scientists won a Nobel Prize for their pioneering work that helped create this field. That “stamp of approval” will help secure more funding for this research that will lead to another round of great discoveries.
Make no mistake about it. We are quickly moving toward the day when living to 100 – while remaining in robust health – becomes routine. And adult stem cells will play a key role in what I believe will be the greatest epoch in human history.