Treating macular degeneration with regenerative medicine

blue eye
Losing eyesight isolates people from their surroundings and increases the risk of accidents. Scientists are currently working on ways to revert this damage.

As we age, we all tend to lose certain abilities. It is a fact of life that we must accept. A 50-year-old can not be expected to move with the ease of a teenager. Similarly, elderly people must slow down and become more cautious than their former selves in order to prevent accidents. However, there is a difference between taking things easier as time passes and losing independence. The former is normal and expected, the latter is usually a consequence of disease.

One condition that severely impacts the quality of life of the elderly is macular degeneration (AMD). This disease can result in permanent vision loss, which in turn increases the risk of suffering depression, as well as falls that can result in injury. As a consequence, people who develop AMD end up requiring assistance with daily tasks.

For a long time, medication and laser therapy have been the only tools at our disposal to try and slow down the progression of this disease. Fortunately, researchers are currently working on stem cell-based therapies that have the potential to actually reverse the damage caused by AMD. This is the power of regenerative medicine.

What is macular degeneration?

Macular degeneration is a degenerative condition that consists of the wearing down of photosensory cells located in the macula. This is an oval-shaped area of the retina that enables high-acuity vision.

This condition is most common in people over 60 years of age and may get worse as time passes. There are two types of AMD: dry and wet.

  • Dry macular degeneration, also called non-neovascular AMD, has a slower progression rate and may not impact vision. Up to 90% of patients have the dry form of the disease.
  • Wet macular degeneration, also called neovascular AMD, is less common but more severe. It can produce a blind spot in the center of the patient’s field of vision (leaving peripheral vision unaffected).

According to the Canadian Associaton of Optometrists, macular degeneration is the leading cause of blindness in adults over the age of 55 in North America. The number of Canadians suffering from this condition exceeds 2 million.

How do you get macular degeneration?

While the exact cause has not been defined, there are several risk factors both genetic and environmental.

  • Age
    This disease is most common in people over 60.
  • Family history
    Scientists have identified an association between changes in certain genes involved in the immune response to foreign threats (such as viruses and bacterias), and AMD.
  • Obesity
    A study published in Ophthalmic Epidemiology found that obese subjects had an increased risk of late AMD in comparison with lean subjects.
  • Smoking
    In a review published in the European Journal of Epidemiology, researchers revealed a strong association between smoking and the development of AMD.

What are the stages of macular degeneration?

According to the American Macular Degeneration Foundation, there are three stages: early, intermediate, and late. Symptoms are not apparent in the early stage and may only be noticeable once the disease has progressed to the late stage.

Man getting a routine eye exam.
Patients with macular degeneration may not notice symptoms immediately. Getting routine eye exams is important for early diagnosis.

For this reason, it is important for people who have the risk factors previously mentioned to get routine eye exams. If a person has AMD, a doctor will be able to see drusen. These are yellow deposits under the retina that are characteristic of the disease.

Could regenerative medicine cure macular degeneration?

Given the extraordinary advancements in the field of regenerative medicine over the last decade it is just a matter of time before a cure for macular degeneration is available to the public.

One of the most promising clinical trials for the potential treatment of AMD involves the use of pluripotent stem cells or iPSCs. These are adult cells that are reprogrammed to act like embryonic stem cells, which means that they can become any cell type in the body. A team of Japanese scientists took skin cells from an elderly AMD patient, turned them into iPSCs, and differentiated them into retinal cells. These cells were then transplanted into the patient’s retina.

In a case report published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers described the results of the aforementioned procedure as ‘very encouraging.’ The scientists in charge of the experiment observed long-term survival of the graft. This suggests a functional integration of the transplanted cells. Additionally, the visual deterioration stopped after the procedure. This study provides the first evidence of a successful human trial using iPSCs as a treatment for AMD.

The National Institutes of Health announced that they will be conducting the first clinical in the U.S. A total of 12 patients with advanced-stage geographic atrophy will receive an iPSC-derived implant in one of their eyes. Researchers will monitor them for a year to confirm safety.

These clinical trials put us on the path towards being able to give the millions of people whose lives have been disrupted by AMD their freedom back. All thanks to the power of regenerative medicine.

How you can take action today

The possibilities truly are endless when it comes to the therapeutic potential of our cells. One thing to keep in mind is that as we age our cells deteriorate and become less viable in medicine.

There is a simple and convenient way to bypass this problem: banking your cells at Acorn. It is as easy as plucking a few hairs. Our experts will take the cells contained in the follicles and preserve them under carefully controlled conditions. This way, if you ever require them for therapeutic purposes they will be young and healthy, ready to be turned into whatever cell type needed, be they retinal cells for treatment of macular degeneration, neurons for treatment of Alzheimer’s, or even heart cells.

To learn more about the ways you can have your cells banked at Acorn, click here.