UK surgeons have carried out the first stem cell therapy designed to treat wet age-related macular degeneration, which will cure a cause of blindness within the elderly.

The procedure marked the beginning of a ground-breaking trial that was investigating the safety and efficacy of transplanting eye cells acquired from stem cells. The trial’s aim was to treat people with sudden severe visual loss from wet AMD.

The stem cells are used to replace those found at the back of the eye that have been affected by the disease, the cells are delivered through a specially engineered patch inserted behind the retina.

The operation was carried out by surgeons at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London and deemed a success, though the outcome (in terms of initial visual recovery) will not be known until December. Nonetheless the researchers are convinced it has huge potential.

The therapy was developed by the London Project to Cure Blindness, a partnership between Moorfields, the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology, the National Institute for Health Research and Pfizer.

Macular degeneration accounts for almost 50% of all visual impairment in the developed world, and affects around 25% of over 60s in the UK. Recent research, published in the British Journal of Ophthalmology, suggests that as many as 40,000 people a year develop wet AMD.

Aside from the trial’s impact on patients, it has been documented that the condition is placing a massive drain on resources. With the cost of treating wet AMD already accounting for more than 1% of the entire NHS drugs budget, and many hospitals are operating extra clinics to cope with demand, according to the Macular Society.

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