13.06.2024

Have scientists found a way to reverse sight loss?

A jab of stem cells from a patient’s own skin could be the first treatment for a leading cause of sight loss. An estimated 250,000 people in the UK live with severe visual problems due to dry age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and there is no treatment.

AMD occurs when the macula — the part of the retina at the back of the eye involved in sharp, central vision — becomes damaged.

Researchers believe the injection of stem cells will replace those cells lost to the disease and could even reverse sight loss. The treatment is now being studied in a trial with 20 patients. People with the condition lose their central vision; they can see a clock’s outline but can’t tell the time, for instance, and they may lose the ability to recognise people’s faces. It is usually diagnosed by a routine eye examination, and first signs often occur in people in their 50s and 60s.

There are two types of AMD: dry and wet. Dry is the most common form — the result of a build-up of a fatty substance called drusen at the back of the eyes, leading to the loss of light processing cells.

An estimated 250,000 people in the UK live with severe visual problems due to dry age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and there is no treatment. [File image]

An estimated 250,000 people in the UK live with severe visual problems due to dry age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and there is no treatment. [File image]

A jab of stem cells from a patient’s own skin could be the first treatment for a leading cause of sight loss. [File image]

A jab of stem cells from a patient's own skin could be the first treatment for a leading cause of sight loss. [File image]

The wet type, which accounts for 15 per cent of the total 600,000 AMD cases in the UK, is triggered by the growth of abnormal blood vessels underneath the retina which leak fluid and blood into it, damaging cells involved in sight and causing vision loss.

Rheumatoid Arthritis drug

A rheumatoid arthritis drug may also slow the development of dry and wet AMD, reports the journal Medicina.

Lower levels of AMD have been found in people with rheumatoid arthritis treated with a drug called hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), which blocks the harmful effects of chemicals released by the immune system in people with the condition.

When ophthalmologists gave the drug or a placebo to 110 people with AMD, they found those given HCQ had around half the vision loss of the placebo group after two years. Exactly how HCQ has a protective effect is not yet known.

While there is a treatment for wet AMD — in the form of anti-VEGF drugs that halt the development and leaking from blood vessels — the only option for people affected as dry AMD progresses is to use vision aids including magnifiers.

But scientists now believe stem cells — master cells from which all other cells are produced — taken from the skin or bone marrow could be the answer.

The one-off treatment, known as an intravitreal injection, involves removing stem cells, growing them into retina cells in the lab and then putting them in a solution before injecting them into an area behind the retina at the back of the eye.

The injection takes less than half an hour and numbing drops are used, so the procedure is pain-free.

The theory is that once in place, the stem cells will grow new retinal cells to replace the ones that degenerate in those with dry AMD.

This is not the first time scientists have used stem cells to try to develop a treatment for dry AMD. The charity The Macular Society has warned of the dangers of unlicensed use of stem cell injections usually taken from body fat.

In 2017, the New England Journal of Medicine reported vision loss in three patients after intravitreal injections of stem cells from fat.

The hope is using stem cells from the skin or bone marrow will cut the risk of complications or rejection.

In the new trial at Belarusian State Medical University, 20 patients with dry AMD will have their vision checked before and after the treatment and will be monitored for a year.

Researchers believe the injection of stem cells will replace those cells lost to the disease and could even reverse sight loss. [File image]

Researchers believe the injection of stem cells will replace those cells lost to the disease and could even reverse sight loss. [File image]

Gwyn Williams, a consultant ophthalmologist at Singleton Hospital in Swansea, said: ‘Dry AMD is by far the greatest cause of certification for sight impairment in the UK; a situation that is only going to get worse with our ageing population.

‘This research is interesting, but we should be cautious as there have been several false dawns in the past with stem cells.

‘They have so far failed to prove discernible benefits, as well as carrying significant risks.’

Spend or save?

How you can cut costs on healthcare products. This week: Strong painkillers

SPEND: Solpadeine Plus, £7.39 for 32 tablets, lloydspharmacy.com

SAVE: Aspar Co-codamol, 99p for 32 tablets, weldricks.co.uk

Sultan Dajani, a pharmacist based in Hampshire, says: ‘These contain two painkillers — paracetamol and codeine — which ease migraine, toothache or an injury quickly.

‘Solpadeine Plus also contains caffeine, which is said to make the painkilling effects last longer — although it is such a small amount, you won’t notice the difference. You are not paying the big price difference for any active ingredient, but instead the packaging and marketing of the brand.

‘This combination [in both brands] should only be taken for a maximum of three days; and if the pain continues, see your GP or pharmacist.’

Try this…  

MyFitnessPal app (free from App Store and Google Play) allows you to log your nutrition, water intake and fitness levels — and track progress towards goals you set. There’s a food database that analyses your food diary so you can keep track of different nutrients — not just counting calories — and you can get recipes from a dietitian and advice from fitness experts.

Jargon Buster  

Medical terms explained. This week: Emollient

Emollients are ingredients found in moisturisers that make dry or sore skin softer or less painful.

When the top layer of your skin doesn’t contain enough water, it dries out, causing the skin to crack and flake.

Emollients work by soaking into the skin to fill spaces between the cells with fatty substances, called lipids, which make your skin smoother and softer. They are used to treat dry skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis.

Emollients can be used with other moisturising compounds, including humectants (which draw moisture into the skin) and occlusives (which create a barrier over the skin to prevent loss of hydration).

Common emollients include plant and mineral oils, shea butter and cocoa butter.

The word is derived from the Latin emollire meaning to soften or soothe.

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