The European Commission has given conditional marketing approval to a stem cell-based therapy for the first time. Clinical availability still depends on pending decisions in European Union (EU) member states but the treatment, called Holoclar, is on course to restore vision to thousands of patients with severe eye damage.
'Holoclar is the very first medicinal product based on stem cells to be approved and formally registered in the Western world,' confirmed Andrea Chiesi, director of R&D portfolio management at Chiesi, the pharmaceutical company that developed the treatment.
Holoclar is aimed at treating limbal stem cell deficiency (LSCD), a rare eye condition affecting around three in 100,000 adults in the EU. LSCD most often occurs after damage from physical or chemical burns to the eye.
Holoclar is a living-tissue product, a 'lens' that can be fashioned out of autologous - the patient's own - stem cells.
A healthy eye normally renews itself every six-to-nine months using limbal stem cells (LSCs), found between the cornea (the clear front layer of the eye) and the sclera (the white of the eye). When these cells are damaged it can lead to scarring and eventually blindness.
With Holoclar, the LSCs from the patient are used in the laboratory to create a cornea that is transplanted back into the eye. In trials it has been used along with corneal transplants to improve outcome and can lead to full recovery of eyesight.
Professor Graziella Pellegrini, who was involved in the research and design of Holoclar, said: 'If in at least one of the eyes of the patient even a small residue of undamaged limbus is left, we are able to reconstruct in laboratory the epithelium that covers the corneal surface.'
Because the cells are the patient's own the risk of rejection is greatly reduced.
Holoclar's development began over 20 years ago. The European Medicines Agency recommended the treatment for approval in December (see BioNews 785).
At that time King's College London stem cell expert Dr Dusko Ilic said he hoped that Holoclar was 'not just an exception, and that many more cellular therapy products will see market in the next year'.