Upwards of 30 million people on the planet suffer from Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD), which causes pain and a black spot in the center of the patient’s vision that grows into eventual blindness. Recently, studies conducted at University College London reveal a possible cure for the first time in history. Professor Pete Coffey has been working to develop a treatment using a patient’s own stem cells for the past eight years, and the first patient to receive the treatment—just last August—is showing promising results.
Coffey looked to stem cells to replace the layer of cells damaged by the progressive disease. AMD destroys the eye’s Retinal Pigment Epithelium (RPE), causing patients to experience a black spot in their vision which expands outward and leads to complete blindness. AMD sufferers also lose the ability to read and recognize familiar faces, altering their lives forever. The only existing treatments for AMD simply manage the discomfort associated with the disease, but there have been no breakthroughs for potential cures until now.
A 60-year-old woman with a severe form of AMD was Coffey’s first guinea pig. On August 11, 2015, surgeons at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London implanted stem cells that had been cultivated as RPE cells, hoping the new additions would step in and repair the degeneration. Six months after the procedure, Coffey was still hesitant to call the procedure a win, despite improvements. “We are assessing her vision — we need more information to make conclusions,” said Coffey, who hopes patients can get their lives back. “Recovery is possible… there is a window when you can put the cells in and recover the patient’s vision. I would hope they can recognize their families again.”