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Stem Cell Trials at Moorfields Eye Hospital

Moorfields Eye Hospital in London has been given the go-ahead to conduct the first clinical stem cell research in the UK. Stargardt disease is an inheritable condition, which affects young people. It is a form of macular degeneration which leads to loss of sight by affecting the retina. The disease creates a lesion on the retina, which has fat deposits around it, and over time the changes become more severe, all the while reducing the patient’s ability to see. The disease is currently untreatable, although doctors are working with specialist manufacturer Oakley sunglasses to try and develop a lens that will slow the process.

The trials will involve embryonic a cells being injected into the retina, and the operation will only last an hour. Professor James Bainbridge will be conducting the trial says: “There is real potential that people with blinding disorders of the retina, including Stargardt disease and age-related macular degeneration, might benefit in the future from transplantation of retinal cells”.

The use of embryonic “stem” cells has a controversial history. Stem cells are found in all multicellular organisms, and they can divide into diverse cell types and also self-renew to create more stem cells. In adults, stem cells act as a repair system. In a developing embryo, the stem cells’ function is to replicate and form the specialised cells required to build the animal. In recent years, more research has been done into how we can use these embryonic cells to help heal an adult human body. However, there is a lot of push back from religious and Pro-Life organisations, who believe that embryos should not be harvested. 

Some stem cell research has happened in some states in the United States, for example the technology to be used in the trials at Moorfields Eye Hospital was developed by the US company Advanced Celled Technology in November 2010. In Europe only Finland, Greece, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK have permission to create stem cells, but the Moorfields trials are the first where stem cells will actually be used. 

These trials are a positive step towards being able to use stem cells to treat other diseases. If these trials are successful, other trials may be allowed. Professor Peng Khaw, who is the director of biomedical research at Moorfields believes that it is “crucial that we continue to attract external investment for world-leading research in the UK”.
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