First iPS stem cell retina surgery performed in Japan

Japanese researchers on Friday conducted the world’s first surgery with “iPS” stem cells on serious eye disease. This may possibly pave the way for treatment of a common cause of blindness, two institutions involved said.

A female patient with age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a common medical condition that can lead to blindness in older people, had a sheet of retina cells that had been created from iPS cells implanted. The research team used induced Pluripotent Stem (iPS) cells – which have the potential to develop into any cell in the body – that had originally come from the skin of the patient, the institutions said in a statement. 

Until the discovery of iPS several years ago, the only way to obtain stem cells was to harvest them from human embryos. The surgery is still at an experimental stage, but if it is successful, doctors hope it will stop the deterioration in vision that comes with AMD. 

The patient – one of six expected to take part in the trial – will be monitored over the next four years to determine how well the implants have performed, whether the body has accepted them and if they have become cancerous. 

AMD, a condition that is incurable at present, affects mostly middle-aged and older people and can lead to blindness. It afflicts around 700 000 people in Japan alone. The study was being carried out by researchers from government-backed research institution Riken and the Institute of Biomedical Research and Innovation Hospital. 

Stem cell research is a pioneering field that has excited many in the scientific community with the potential they believe it offers. Stem cells are infant cells that can develop into any part of the body. 

Harvesting from human embryos is controversial because it requires the destruction of the embryo, a process to which religious conservatives, among others, object. 

Groundbreaking work done in 2006 by Shinya Yamanaka at Kyoto University, a Nobel Laureate in medicine last year, succeeded in generating stem cells from adult skin tissue. – AFP

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