Dr. Steven Schwartz, an eye doctor from UCLA, has begun to test the first embryonic-stem-cell therapy for Stargardt’s and dry macular degeneration. One of the people in his clinical trial is a 26 year-old female that is legally blind. She is being evaluated as a potential pioneer to receive the first retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) cells generated from embryonic stem cells. If she is accepted, she will join other patients with macular degeneration who will have thousands of cells injected into their eyes to replace their destroyed RPE cells in the retina and hopefully rescue any remaining photoreceptor cells.
With this clinical trial underway, scientists are beginning to determine whether or not embryonic-stem-cell therapies are safe and ultimately effective. A few patients with spinal cord injuries have received injections of an embryonic-stem-cell-based treatment in an effort to repair the shredded nerves that crisscross the spinal cord and extend out to the arms, legs, fingers, and toes. In cases such as Alzheimer’s disease, doctors are hoping to replace damaged nerve cells in the brain with new, healthier versions that could eventually lead to a cure.
Despite much controversy in the last decade and questions to be answered over stem cell therapy, scientists are hoping to find a way to intervene with cells to do the most good and attack diseases before they advance. Dr. Schwartz does not anticipate that early participants will regain their vision completely, nor do the spinal cord experts believe their first patients will walk again after receiving treatments. They are hoping that the therapies are safe and they can strike at diseases like macular degeneration before one’s vision is completely gone.