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Will Stem Cell Retinal Transplants Cause Blindness (in critics)?

Tim Boyer's picture
human eye

A clinical study involving stem cell retinal transplants as a potential cure for blindness has made the news lately with cautious optimism regarding whether or not it will actually lead to a cure for some forms of blindness. However, what may be just as significant as a cure is the effect it may have on critics opposed to stem cell research. Read on to discover why a success in a stem cell retinal transplant study may cause blindness of another type in people who do not want to see the future of medicine.

Since the very first days following the birth of Dolly the cloned sheep, stem cell research has raised more scientific and political debate than Roe v. Wade and the teaching of evolution in schools combined. And for good reason. All three are interrelated in the question of how we define ourselves physiologically, evolutionarily and spiritually.

The promise of stem cell research is that it may hold cures for the presently incurable. For genetic conditions that give us a silent prayer of, “There but for the grace of God and statistics, there go I.”

Opponents of stem cell research, however, carry a suspicion of such promises. They believe that aside from a moral and ethical slippery slope stem cell research may hold for us, their primary opposition is that stem cell research may involve the destruction of a potential life to save an existing life.

From lists possessing arguments against stem cell research, the argument that stem cell research violates the sanctity of human life (and that to take a life to save a life is no moral argument) is typically the number one argument on the list.

Fair enough…for now. But what of the other arguments against stem cell research? In particular, the second most common argument?

The second most common argument is that presently, no human being has ever been cured of a disease using embryonic stem cells; and, that adult stem cells hold as much if not more promise than embryonic stem cells. The argument of whether adult stem cells are better or more informative, and thereby dismisses the need for embryonic stem cell research, is an area where even scientists do not totally agree on.

However, the part of the argument that no one has ever been cured of a disease using embryonic stem cells reveals a chink in an important argument. What if someone becomes cured? What then? According to a press release issued by Advanced Cell Technology, Inc. a biotech company that specializes in regenerative medicine, they may have found a first cure.

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In a paper to be published in the medical journal The Lancet, ACT researchers report their success in a clinical trial that demonstrates the safety of their human embryonic stem cell (hESC)-derived retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) cells for the treatment of blindness due to Stargardt’s macular dystrophy and dry age-related macular degeneration. Stargardt's disease is one of the main causes of blindness in young people, whereas dry age-related macular degeneration is the leading cause of blindness in the elderly.

The treatment involved taking healthy immature cells from a human embryo, which were then induced to develop into healthy retinal cells that were then injected into the test subjects’ diseased eyes.

After four months following treatment, no adverse effects such as abnormal growth or tissue rejection were observed in either of the study’s patients. The greatest concern was that the stem cells due to their ability to differentiate into other cell types would do so and become a tumor or some other unwanted structure. Results reported indicate that stem cell differentiation was well controlled in these patients and that no adverse safety signals were detected.

Reason for cautious optimism lies not only in the lack of any adverse effects, but also that structural evidence confirmed that the human embryonic stem cells survived and continued to thrive. Both patients have stated that their vision has already improved some, and vision tests show that measurable improvements in their vision have persisted for more than four months.

“It has been over a decade since the discovery of human embryonic stem cells,” says Robert Lanza, M.D., chief scientific officer of ACT, and co-senior author of the paper. “This is the first report of hESC-derived cells transplanted into patients, and the safety and engraftment data to date look very encouraging. Although several new drugs are available for the treatment of the wet type of AMD, no proven treatments currently exist for either dry AMD or Stargardt’s disease. Despite the progressive nature of these conditions, the vision of both patients appears to have improved after transplantation of the cells, even at the lowest dosage. This is particularly important, since the ultimate goal of this therapy will be to treat patients earlier in the course of the disease where more significant results might potentially be expected,” says Dr. Lanza.

With this success, future clinical trials are in the planning stages for determining the smallest therapeutic dose of embryonic stem cells to inject into patients, as well as additional studies toward treating Stargardt's disease using human embryonic stem cell (hESC)-derived retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) cells in curing blindness.

While it will be at least a few years before their embryonic stem cell treatment will be considered a qualified success in curing some forms of blindness, it will be interesting to note whether critics may turn a blind eye to the success and continue to argue against the validity of stem cell research based on the argument that no one has been cured of a disease owing to research using embryonic stem cells. If so, it may not matter. What does matter is that now that we know it can be done, others may pay attention and have a change of opinion about stem cell research.

Source of image: Courtesy of Wikipedia

Reference: The Lancet, Jan. 2012 “Embryonic stem cell trials for macular degeneration: a preliminary report”; Steven D Schwartz, Jean-Pierre Hubschman, Gad Heilwell, Valentina Franco-Cardenas, Carolyn K Pan, Rosaleen M Ostrick, Edmund Mickunas, Roger Gay, Irina Klimanskaya, Robert Lanza



Hello, i am studying A level Biology and we have to write an issue report on blindness with an alternative solution. I found your report useful for the arguments you stated. It would be very helpful if you could do a short publication on the use of stem cell therapy in the cure of blindness. It would be vey much appreciated. Please let me know if this is possible. Thank you. Ms. Lara
Hi, I am not able to put together such an article at this time; however, here is a link to an interesting article that goes back 8 years discussing the futuristic possibility of stem cells for eye therapy as well as other methods of treatment. A comparative analysis of what was said then and now would likely meet your requirement for the topic described. Good luck on the paper. http://www.nature.com/eye/journal/v18/n11/full/6701577a.html
I am the mother of an 11 year old boy who was born blind. His retina's are detached and his optic nerves are very small. The only way he'll be able to see is to have a retinal transplant and stem cells to improve his eyes. I know that there is alot of controversy over the use of stem cells. Be it embryonic or not. But this is an amazing breakthrough in medical science. And I'd give my own stem cells if it meant giving my little boy sight for the 1st time. We need to stop arguing over the moral dilemma's of using this kind of treatment. And think about the thousands of people that are either born or lose their sight in one way or another every year. Anyone in their right mind would want to find a way to get their vision back if they lost it. Including people in the medical profession. This kind of experimental treatment could change peoples lives. Just think where we would be if no-one had found out how to do IVF or other medical breakthroughs that messed around with nature. At the end of the day these stem cells are just that, cells. And without experiments we would never be as advanced in medical treatments as we are today. So, until the time comes when these sort of things are accepted. I'll be waiting and praying for the time when I can tell my son that there's finally hope that he'll be able to see
Hi Jeannette, don't loose hope. I have hope for my 21 year old daughter too. She had strabismus surgery when she was two (which was a simple 45 outpatient surgery) and an infection complication (which wasn't treated properly) caused a retinal detachment which lead too permanent blindness. Our hope is not only for her to one day regain vision but MOSTLY for a complete retinal reconstruction to improve the deformed look of the eye. It is shrunk and has a white cloud look. All my daughter wants is for her eye to look normal and not so much to gain vision. Good Luck to you!! I'll be praying for both you and your son.
Hi. I have a 7month old baby with a complete retina detachment. I and my husband would give anything to make him see. We have taken him for a surgery procedure which was unsuccessful. We are hoping that a complete transplant of retinal and stem cell could help him see. Please kindly reply to my post.
Hi, so sorry to hear about your baby's eyesight. I would suggest that to find the help and up to date information you need is to contact medical academic researchers who specialize in both diseases of the eye and stem cell research. You could start by tracking down and contacting the co-authors referenced in the study. By this time, some of them are likely heading their own labs and may be pursuing this line of research further. There is the potential of qualifying for a medical trial that may address your infant's health problem. However, that said, it may still yet be too soon before this particular application can be offered as stem cell treatments used in human patients have many legal and medical hurdles. Still, you never know until you ask the right people directly. Good luck on your endeavors!