October 12, 2003
By Jason Dowling,
The Age Online.
A cure for some forms of blindness could be only five years away, a stem cell conference in Melbourne heard this week.
The University of Toronto's Derek Van der Kooy said his team had developed a way to grow stem cells taken from the eye that could then be transplanted to cure blindness.
"It is an exciting development for me and for blind people," Dr Van der Kooy said.
The first disease to be treated, he said, would probably be retinitis pigmentosa, which kills the photoreceptor cells in the eye that receive light.
"We will go into the eyes of blind people, take out the stem cells from the edge of the eye, grow a huge number of the photoreceptor cells from those stem cells in the culture, and put the photoreceptors back into the eye where they are needed," Dr Van der Kooy said.
He added that the long-term goal was to be able to activate stem cells in the eye without taking them out. This would avoid the immune rejection drugs necessary for transplants. But he said the rejection of transplanted cells was not the only concern.
"One of the problems, of course, is that stem cells are often the basis of tumours," he said.
The procedure could possibly lead to the uncontrolled growth of stem cells in the eye which could lead to a tumour. But this had not deterred many blind people from embracing the research, Dr Van der Kooy said.
"When I give talks where there are blind people in the audience, they want to do the procedure right away. They say their eyes are no good to them now anyway - so they want to give it a try."
The cost of the transplant would vary depending on the complexity of the operation, but the procedure should be available to people of any age.
"In principle this will be available to people of all ages, the stem cells are always there," he said.
Dr Van der Kooy said he had used adult stem cells, rather than the more controversial embryonic stem cells, for his research.
"We haven't been able to grow retinal cells from embryonic stem cells yet," he said. "This will be one disease that is treated with adult stem cells first."
He added that his research team had so far been able to extract about 10,000 stem cells from each eye they had worked on. The team receives donor eyes from the Canadian eye bank. The stem cells must be extracted within 24 hours of a post-mortem to be viable.
"This is a rare case where we have accessible and easy-to-grow stores of stem cells in humans that can be used in transplant therapy," he said.
Work in the US to restore sight in rodents using both human and mouse/rat retinal stem cells pointed to the potential success of the stem cells in curing blindness, Dr Van der Kooy said.
US scientists have developed a water maze in which a platform can be distinguished by lines on the side. As rats hate water, their ability to determine which area has the platform is a measure of their sight.
Dr Van der Kooy believes the restoration of sight will be one of the first transplant therapies to use stem cells.
Copyright © 2003. The Age Company Ltd
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