Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the leading cause of vision loss, afflicting 1 in 4 people over the age of 65. AMD causes the degeneration of the part of the eye responsible for providing sharp, central vision. A layer of cells at the back of the eye, called the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE), provides support, protection, and nutrition to the light sensitive cells of the retina. Dysfunction of these cells plays a critical role in blindness and vision loss in AMD.

Initially, AMD causes distortion in central vision; eventually, it can lead to legal blindness. Vision loss may progress slowly or quickly; however, over time, all victims develop blurred or blank spots in their vision, making it increasingly more difficult to perform daily tasks and recognize faces.

“Vision loss may progress slowly or quickly; however, over time, all victims develop blurred or blank spots in their vision.”

By 2020, over 450,000 Californians will suffer from vision loss or blindness due to AMD. Treatment is extremely expensive and not altogether effective. Costs continue to skyrocket; the cost of AMD per patient per year can exceed $25,000.

Progress Towards A Cure

California’s stem cell research agency, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has awarded more than $125 million in funding to vision loss-related projects.

In one project, scientists at the University of Southern California (USC) are using a stem cell therapy to limit the progression of, and eventually restore vision to, people with AMD. The team is testing a system wherein RPE cells derived from embryonic stem cells are grown on a scaffold in the form of a very thin sheet. This sheet is then surgically implanted into the retina to support the health of the light-sensing cells in patients with AMD.

“This research could be a game-changer in AMD.”

CIRM funding helped establish the basis of this work in pre-clinical studies, and is further funding a Phase 1/2a clinical trial to test this approach in humans with a $17 million grant. The first part of the study will ensure that the method is safe, and the second part will see if vision can be restored. The eventual goal is to be able to treat AMD patients early enough that it could prevent severe vision loss.

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