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There is a lot to be said about stem cell research. The procedures involved carry numerous risks. A case in point is the incident that happened just last month when three women succumbed to blindness after undergoing stem cell surgery to combat their rapidly deteriorating eyesight. But even with those risks factored in, it seems that stem cell treatment may be the future of medical procedures with stem cells being used to treat multiple sclerosis towards the end of last year, as well as being administered to stroke patients to stave off the side effects.

Scientists from the Kobe City Medical General Hospital in collaboration with the RIKEN in Japan have bypassed all the ethics debates related to stem cell treatment and have, for the first time in the world, successfully administered stem cells into the eye of a patient to fight the deteriorating effects of age-associated macular degeneration.

The team had conducted an almost similar procedure back in 2014.

In the 2014 process, the team from Kobe City Med successfully obtained skin cells from a female patient. The team reprogrammed her skin cells into embryonic cells which can grow into any body cell called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. The group conducting the study monitored the cells as they developed into retinal pigment epithelial cells before injecting them under the skin of her retina. A year after the study, the woman’s eyesight had not improved as the cells could not repair the initial damage, but the macular degeneration had halted.

The team was going to conduct another study in which the iPS cells would come from a donor, but major concerns raised about the safety of the procedure and the possible complications from the rejection of donor cells derailed the researchers’ plans.

About Macular Degeneration

Macular degeneration is a condition which causes the macula, the part of the retina responsible for vision as well as recognition, deteriorates. The result of the deterioration is that the eye is not able to communicate images to the brain clearly, leading to damage of the affected individual’s eyesight. The most general reason for macular degeneration is age.

The 2017 Procedure

The procedure that the sixty-year-old Japanese man underwent was quite straightforward. The team of scientists from Kobe Med and RIKEN obtained skin cells from a donor. They reprogrammed the cells into retinal ones. The grown retinal cells were then injected into the retina of the test subject in the first step of the safety study. A safety study is the testing done just before a process goes in for testing in clinical trials. So far, no related complications have arisen from the stem cell transfer procedure, but the medical professionals note that the study cannot yet be deemed a success or not.

RIKEN team leader Masayo Takahashi stated, “It will be years before we know if the treatment for successful or not. What we are doing for now is monitoring the patient’s progress with the aim of controlling rejection if it occurs.” The patient will be observed for a year, followed by three years of check-ups to look out for any abnormalities developed as a result of the surgery. He is one of five patients set to undergo the trial.

Nature applauded the scientists’ cautious approach when it came to the study.

Should this trial be successful, it would aid in the realization of Nobel Prize winner Shinya Yamanaka’s dream of building a donor bank since scientists could now be able to transfer donor iPS cells into patients with compatible cells. This advancement would make for more affordable and available stem cell treatments in future.