A human trial into curing blindness is now a realistic prospect for the first time, say scientists in the UK after conducting an animal study using stem cells.
Details of the animal study, which are published in the journal Nature Biotechnology, show that the part of the eye which detects light can be repaired using stem cells.
Scientists at Moorfields Eye Hospital and the University College London believe that conducting human trials to cure blindness is now possible, reports the BBC.
Photoreceptors are the cells in the retina that react to light and convert it into an electrical signal, which is then be sent to the brain.
It is possible for these cells to die off in some causes of blindness such as Stargardt’s disease and age-related macular degeneration.
Scientists conducting the trial say it is now possible to replace the light-sensing cells themselves, which raises the possibility of curing blindness.
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Currently, there are human trials to use stem cells to replace the support, but not replace, cells in the eye that keep the photoreceptors alive.
Using a new technique for building retinas in the laboratory, the scientists collected thousands of stem cells primed to transform into photoreceptors, and then injected them into the eyes of blind mice.
The cells bonded with existing eye tissue and began to function.
However, more development will be carried out to improve the effectiveness, which is still slow. Of the 200,000 cells only 1,000 actually began to function.
Lead researcher Prof Robin Ali told the BBC News website: "This is a real proof of concept that photoreceptors can be transplanted from an embryonic stem cells source and it give us a route map to now do this in humans.
"That’s why we’re so excited, five years is a now a realistic aim for starting a clinical trial."
University College London Prof Chris Mason told the BBC: "At the moment the numbers of tiny and it will take quite a bit of work to get the numbers up and then the next question is ‘Can you do it in man?’
"But I think it is a significant breakthrough which may lead to cell therapies and will give a much expanded knowledge on how to cure blindness."
Image: Scientists believe that for the first time curing blindness is a possibility. Photo: courtesy of Loredana Bejerita.