Tuesday June 29, 2010

Latest Adult Stem Cell Advance Gives Sight to the Blind

By Peter J. Smith

WASHINGTON, D.C., June 29, 2010 ( – For individuals blinded by chemical burns, the ever advancing field of adult stem-cell research has provided yet another astonishing cure – giving them sight through their own stem cells.

Italian researchers have reported developing a very successful therapy to cure those who were either blinded, or whose vision was severely impaired by chemical burns to their corneas. Such burns can come about through handling everything from toxic cleaning substances at home to heavy-duty chemicals at work.

The new stem-cell therapy, however, is specific to chemical burns and cannot be used to remedy other diseases or damages to the eye, such as glaucoma or retinal damage.

In a study published by the New England Journal of Medicine, scientists treated 107 eyes of 106 patients with stem cells derived from the limbus, the rim around the cornea, where stem cells are naturally produced by the body to repair the cornea.

The researchers derived the stem cells from a patient’s healthy eye, and then encouraged them to multiply. Once they had enough stem cells, they removed the scar tissue over the bad eye and grafted the stem cells onto the cornea, which then began to generate new corneal tissues.

After 12-24 months had passed, these grafts were then followed up by corrective surgeries.

One patient had severe alkali burns on both his eyes from 1948. Researchers, however, were able to adapt and derive limbal stem-cell cultures with biopsied tissue taken from the patient’s left eye. The therapy managed to successfully restore both corneal surfaces, transitioning the man from blindness to having an almost normal, combined vision of close to 20/30. Follow-ups after two and five years showed that both eyes were stable after the treatment.

In all, the treatment had a 76.6% success rate, sustained over the past decade. The researchers note that all their failure cases occurred within the first year of treatment. In all, 82 of 107 eyes had successful cures, with partial success in 14 others.

“They were incredibly happy. Some said it was a miracle,” one of the study leaders, Graziella Pellegrini of the University of Modena’s Center for Regenerative Medicine in Italy, told the Associated Press. “It was not a miracle. It was simply a technique.”

The treatment is a major advance for the field of stem-cell research, and avoids all the moral and ethical hazards intrinsic to embryonic stem cell research (ESCR), where human embryos must be destroyed for their stem cells. However, despite media hype and sweeping promises of hope, ESCR has yielded no therapies; it is only the field of adult stem cell research that has been on the cutting edge of developing the “miracle cures” demanded by the public.

Even better, the adult stem cells derived from patients are completely compatible with the body, and do not carry the risk of rejection or need drugs to prevent rejection, as is the case with therapies using embryonic stem cells.

One pro-life group, the Susan B. Anthony (SBA) List, said the study proves once again that the future of stem cell research lies in adult stem cells, not embryonic stem cells.

“Not only,” wrote SBA on their blog, do the patients “not have to worry about anti-rejection drugs, patients who undergo adult stem cell therapies are not troubled by the moral and ethical dilemma of destroying small humans, embryos, for scientific research. Also unlike embryonic stem cell research, treatments with adult stem cells have yielded real results.”

SBA also wrote that it’s a “miracle” that “the Italian government funded a study involving only the use of adult stem cells.”

“Here in the U.S.,” they continued, “research with adult stem cells is only in the preliminary stages while after only two months in office, President Obama ended the ban on embryonic stem cell research. Since March 2009, there has been little to no success with embryonic cells. Hopefully the American science & research community will take this hint from our Italian friends!”

Read the study in the New England Journal of Medicine, “Limbal Stem-Cell Therapy and Long-Term Corneal Regeneration” here.