Researchers see future in stem cell therapy for macular degeneration

As members of the baby-boom generation enter their golden years, finding treatments for age-related illnesses continue to take on importance. Among the most prevalent of these diseases is age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a leading cause of blindness worldwide. A group of researchers at Georgetown University Medical Center have taken what they call a "significant step" in combining AMD research with another important study area--stem cell therapy. They say they've demonstrated, for the first time, that it is possible to create retinal cells out of stem cells and transplant them into AMD patients.

For those who are keeping score, the type of stem cell we're talking about are human-induced pluripotent stem cells, which means they're from adults and not embryos. "The discovery of human induced pluripotent stem (hiPS) cells has opened a new avenue for the treatment of degenerative diseases, like AMD, by using a patient's own stem cells to generate tissues and cells for transplantation," the researchers said in a release.

AMD is caused by the death of retinal pigment epithelium (RPE), which is a layer of cells that nourish the cells in the retina. So, in a study published in the journal Stem Cells, the researchers showed that they have taken a step in figuring out how to program hiPS cells to take on the characteristics of RPE.

"This is the first time that hiPS-RPE cells have been produced with the characteristics and functioning of the RPE cells in the eye," said the study's lead author, Nady Golestaneh, in a release. "That makes these cells promising candidates for retinal regeneration therapies in age-related macular degeneration."

However, this researchers come with the usual caveats when dealing with adult-derived stem cells. "This isn't ready for prime time, though," Golestaneh added in the release. "We also identified some issues that need to be worked out before these cells are ready for transplantation but overall, this is a tremendous step forward in regenerative medicine."

- read the release from Georgetown University Medical Center
- and the abstract in the journal Stem Cells

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