The 11th October 2018 is World Sight Day (WSD), an annual day of awareness to focus attention on blindness and visual impairment.
This year has seen a good news story in the fight against sight loss to coincide with this event.
Scientists in the UK have reported on the results of pioneering operations in 2 patients with age-related macular degeneration (AMD).
This is a condition I have sadly become familiar as part of my volunteering work for the RNIB in the past. AMD is macular degeneration, a major cause of sight loss in older people.
AMD damages part of the retina called the macular, which is responsible for central vision. The most common form is ‘dry’ AMD which causes gradual vision loss but some unlucky patients go on to develop ‘wet’ AMD (named due to the fragile blood vessels which start to grow as the body attempts to repair the damaged macula). Sadly these vessels are leaky and bleed easily, causing yet more damage.
AMD is one of the leading cause of blindness in people aged 65 and older, expected to grow as the population ages. One large study in the US found that people in middle age have about a 2% risk of developing AMD, with the risk rising to 30% by the age of 75.
Tragically most people with AMD go undiagnosed for up to 7 years before the condition is detected and treatment can begin. There is no cure for AMD but timely treatment can slow or even halt the progression of the disease.
Wet AMD progresses quickly and can lead to serious changes to central vision in a short period of time. It is a time sensitive condition, meaning that delays in treatment can result in (what would otherwise be reversible) permanent sight loss. Tragically without treatment this will result in the patient being unable to read within a year, even with glasses.
Researchers at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London have successfully used a stem cell patch cell to repair the damaged membrane at the back of the eye called the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE). The patients involved in the study were amongst the first to receive retinal tissue engineered from stem cells.
The patients involved in the study were monitored for 12 months, with some reporting improvements in their vision, i.e. going from being unable to read even with glasses to reading 60-80 words per minute with normal reading glasses.
The exciting findings of the study show a potential new treatment for a condition that causes sight loss, and even blindness, in many older people and could lead to an ‘off the shelf’ treatment within the next 5 years.