April 12th 2019 https://inews.co.uk/news/health/stem...ure-blindness/
Developments in stem cell therapy mean doctors are on the cusp of curing blindness
Scientists have successfully restored the vision of two UK patients with age-related macular degeneration

A cure for the most common cause of blindness could be available on the NHS within five years – thanks to a groundbreaking new kind of medicine involving embryonic stem cells. Scientists have successfully restored the vision of two UK patients with age-related macular degeneration by inserting a patch of embryonic stem cells into their eyes to repair damage to the retina.

And while more research is needed to confirm the treatment’s effectiveness, the research team hope an “affordable, off-the-shelf therapy” could be made available to NHS patients within five years.

“The patients are now three years in and they’re still seeing really well – which for any medicine is phenomenal,” said University College London Professor Pete Coffey, who was part of the project.

“It has given a really good indication that this kind of stem cell approach works and helped galvanise the medical community,” he added.

Revolutionary therapies
Two decades after scientists invented a new field of medicine by cracking the riddle of how to separate stem cells from a human embryo, the first round of treatments look to be just round the corner, scientists say.

Apart from the blindness embryonic stem cell therapy, promising treatments for spinal cord injury, heart failure, diabetes, Parkinson’s Disease and lung cancer are also in advanced trials around the world.

“Remarkable new regenerative applications of stem cells are beginning to realise the promise for revolutionary new therapies first identified 20 years ago,” said Professor Tim Camp, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Embryonic, or pluripotent, stem cells have extraordinary medical potential because they can develop into any one of the 220 or so mature, specialised cells of the body – from insulin-making pancreatic cells to the nerve cells of the brain.

Being able to isolate these “Swiss Army knife of cells” before they take on a specialised role in the body, means they can potentially be turned into any kind of cell that is needed.

The hope is that they could one day be used to mend damaged tissues and organs, healing anything from kidney and liver damage to brain disorders, by swapping diseased cells for healthy ones grown from spare IVF embryos.

Medical revolution
Since the industry was kickstarted in 1998, tens of thousands of studies have looked at the potential of this new field of medicine from numerous angles – but no treatment has come through into the health service.

Scientists say it is normal for a game-changing scientific breakthrough to take decades to translate into treatments, however.

That’s because piecing together a new field of medicine requires huge amounts of scientific discovery, while multiple trials must be performed on any potential treatment to determine whether it’s safe and effective – followed by the lengthy process of regulatory approval.

Given how long it takes for science to turn into medicine, Tenneille Ludwig, director of the Stem Cell Bank at WiCell, a charity which studies and distributes stem cells for research, says progress has been surprisingly fast. “If you’re looking for a proven embryonic stem cell therapy, there isn’t one quite yet. But what is surprising is how far we’ve come and how fast we’ve gotten there,” said Dr Ludwig.

She conducted a study of the field last November that revealed 29 in-depth clinical trials in 10 countries and expects the number to “balloon over the next five to ten years.”

There are more than 700 recorded stem cell clinics in the US alone.

Vast new jigsaw
As they piece together the vast new jigsaw, scientists have made considerable progress in learning how to direct the pluripotent “blank slate” embryonic stem cells to become dozens of the mature cells representing various tissues and organs in the body – although many more are yet to be worked out.

But from beating heart cells and insulin-producing beta cells to motor and dopamine-producing nerve cells, scientists are now able to “manufacture” a wide range of cells. And, as they become more efficient at producing the stem cells, they are beginning to do so on the huge scale likely to be required.

Early problems, in the US especially, relating to ethical concerns about using embryos have largely dissipated – in part because in 2006 scientists worked out how to take adult cells and reprogramme them into the pluripotent state of the embryo.

One big hurdle remains, however. Only a small fraction of cells have so far been successfully created that are truly functional equivalents of normal human cells. And some with the most far-reaching uses, such as eggs and sperm, are expected to remain a challenge for many years to come.

A new era
But while much work remains to be done to realise the potential of pluripotent stem cells, enough ground has been covered to suggest large swathes of medicine are about to change forever.

“We’re entering a new era of medicine where the concept of rejuvenation may now be feasible” said Prof Coffey. “You’re not just treating patients and trying to maintain them in good health, but actually restoring them back to the health they had prior to the onset of that disease by restoring their biology.”

“It’s a completely new concept. Within the next five to 10 years, we’re going to start to see some dramatic moves within regenerative medicine,” he added.

Dusko Ilic, of King’s College London, said: “We’re standing on the brink of a new class of treatments involving pluripotent stem cells. There are multiple clinical trials going on around the world, testing treatments for everything from spinal cord injury in the US and Japan to lung cancer in the UK. This is a very exciting time for medicine.”