London’s Moorfields Eye Hospital has treated the first patient in a clinical trial with a new stem cell derived treatment for wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

AMD is the leading cause of blindness in adults globally.

The procedure, which was developed at University College London with funding from the Medical Research Council (MRC), offers hope to those with AMD.

The trial is designed to examine whether it is safe and effective to transplant a type of eye cell called retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells, grown from stem cells in the lab, to restore sight in people with severe visual loss from wet AMD.

The cells are used to replace diseased ones at the back of the eye through a specially engineered patch inserted behind the retina.

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In wet AMD, abnormal blood vessels develop under the macula and break, bleed and leak fluid, which damages the macula and if left untreated, can result in rapid and severe loss of central vision.

In the UK, AMD affects more than 600,000 people and is the leading cause of sight loss in the developed world.

In August, doctors inserted a patch of stem cells into the retina of a woman who lost her central vision and so far there have been no complications.

The operation was believed a success, though the outcome, in terms of initial visual recovery, will not be known until December.

University College London Institute of Ophthalmology professor Pete Coffey said: "We are tremendously pleased to have reached this stage in the research for a new therapeutic approach.

"Although we recognise this clinical trial focuses on a small group of AMD patients who have experienced sudden severe visual loss, we hope that many patients may benefit in the future."

"There is real potential that people with wet age-related macular degeneration will benefit in the future from transplantation of these cells."

The clinical trial is part of the London Project to Cure Blindness, a partnership between Moorfields Eye Hospital, the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology, the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) and Pfizer.

Over 18 months, the trial will recruit another nine patients, each of whom will be followed for a year to evaluate the safety and stability of the cells and whether there is an effect in restoring vision.

Moorfields Eye Hospital retinal surgeon Lyndon Da Cruz said: "There is real potential that people with wet age-related macular degeneration will benefit in the future from transplantation of these cells."

MRC Science Programmes director Dr Rob Buckle said: "This London Project to Cure Blindness / Pfizer trial is an exciting development in regenerative medicine and a great example of how funding discovery science in stem cell biology has led to a clinical trial with commercial partnership.

"This development would neither have been possible without the MRC’s long-standing support for the groundwork behind this technology, nor the hard work and investment from the London Project to Cure Blindness and Pfizer and others to bring the therapy to patients."

Image: In the UK, AMD affects more than 600,000 people. Photo: courtesy of Medical Research Council.