Embryonic Stem Cells Enlisted To Combat Blindness

The first European embryonic stem cell therapy in humans is about to start in London. Surgeons will insert the controversial cells into the eyes of 12 patients suffering from Stargardt’s macular dystrophy, a major cause of blindness in young people.

The study was approved on Thursday and is set to begin in December at Moorfields Eye Hospital. A similar study to treat the same eye disease started in July in the United States at the Jules Stein Eye Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles. Both studies are using cells created by Advanced Cell Technology based in Marlborough, Massachusetts (watch the surgery here).

The first-ever embryonic stem cell clinical trial in the United State launched last year. That study uses cells from Geron in Menlo Park, California.

Because embryonic stem cells are the “master cells” of the body and can become every type of human cell, scientists think they could provide promising treatments for just about any disease you can think of, replacing and possibly regenerating diseased cells or tissue. But the cells are controversial because embryos are destroyed to make them, and some people equate a days-old nearly microscopic embryo with a born baby.

Also, you probably feel like you’ve been hearing about stem cell studies for forever. How can this be the first European human trial? Or maybe you thought the whole stem cell thing was a bust since there hasn’t been all that much news about it lately.

Well, medical science is a slow process, and it has to be that way to make sure treatments work and to protect patients. Forging ahead with experimental medical treatments without proper oversight like Rick Perry advocates is what needlessly drains desperate families’ bank accounts on an ineffective treatment or, worse, kills them.

You’ll likely be hearing a lot more about stem cell research as the presidential elections approach — not necessarily because there will be more promising research, but because politicians like to milk the abortion issue. Something to look forward to!


Image: National Institutes of Health

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