Clinicians from the Institute of Ophthalmology at University College London and Moorfields eye hospital have predicted that an experimental new therapy for treating Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of blindness in the developed world, may become routinely available within the next six to seven years. The declaration follows the announcement of significant financial backing from the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, aimed at driving the treatment into mainstream medicine.
Tom Bremridge, chief executive of the Macular Disease Society, hoped that the cash injection would help fast track the treatment into clinics more quickly. 'This is a huge step forward for patients. We are extremely pleased that the big guns have become involved, because, once this treatment is validated, it will be made available to a huge volume of patients,' he told The Sunday Times newspaper.
The treatment involves growing stem cells, derived from embryos, onto a synthetic membrane and then inserting it into the back of the retina to replace the degenerated cells which cause AMD. Embryonic stem cells can be coaxed to turn into almost any cell in the body; however their use remains controversial because the embryo is destroyed in the process of collecting them.
The treatment, which has been successfully trialled in rats and pigs, may provide a cure for the one in 50 people over the age of 50, and one in five people over the age of 85, who suffer from AMD. Those who have the most common form of the condition - 'dry' AMD - experience progressive breakdown of the light-sensitive cells and supporting tissue in the retinal behind the eye resulting a permanent blurred spot in the centre of vision. Dry AMD accounts for around 85-90 per cent of cases but, unlike the rarer 'wet' version, is currently untreatable.
Professor Pete Coffey, director of the London Project to Cure Blindness, and Lyndon da Cruz, a surgeon at Moorfields, are leading the research. Provided human trials are as successful, Professor Coffey is confident that the procedure could one day be carried out on outpatients in under an hour.