Blindness and Visual Challenges
Given the fact that different countries report statistics related to blindness differently, it may be challenging to come up with exact figures for how many people are impacted by visual challenges worldwide. However, statistics do seem to indicate that approximately 300 million people around the world have vision problems. The majority of these people have vision impairments, but a not insignificant portion of these individuals are legally blind. Most of these individuals interestingly live in the developing world where they may not have access to critical medical care. As a result, these individuals may suffer a wide range of other problems, including a dramatically reduced overall quality of life.
Recognizing that blindness can have devastating effects on impacted individuals, researchers and medical doctors have looked for solutions to these vision challenges. However, much of this research has not yielded meaningful results, at least not to date. This is due to a variety of factors, including the fact that there are numerous causes of blindness, including: cataracts, glaucoma, and diabetes-related complications. Some causes of blindness and vision challenges may be more common in certain areas of the world than in others. Given the various root causes of blindness, it is into surprising that no one treatment works for everyone.
Although stem cell therapy has not traditionally been a go-to option for patients with vision challenges, in recent years, this has changed. More and more researchers and looking at ways that stem cell therapy may be effective in treating blindness caused by various factors. Some recent research results will be described in detail below.
Age-related Macular Degeneration
Age-related macular degeneration is one of the most common causes of blindness, particularly in the United States. As the American population continues to age, one would expect that the number of impacted patients would soar. Therefore, it is important to look at treatment options that could potentially improve these patients’ quality of life.
Age-related macular degeneration damages the retina which is located at the back of the eye. Therefore, the best way to treat this is to repair the damaged tissue. This requires creating a patch of tissue from stem cells. The actual process of implanting this tissue patch may be technically complicated, but initial study results have been positive, showing that patients who have received these implants have noted a dramatic improvement in their eyesight. In fact, researchers at the University College of London who developed this treatment note that results have been even better than anticipated.
However, there are some caveats that should be added to this. First, the test results are still in their earliest stage. More research needs to be carried out to prove that this method is safe and will not damage the patient in any way. And, finally, the researchers note that this method can only be patients with wet-AMD. It does not work for patients with dry-AMD, a more slowly developing form of the disease.
Join our Stem Cell Discussion & Information Facebook Group today!
Limbal Stem Cell Deficiency (LSCD) Blindness
Limbal stem cell deficiency is one cause of blindness for people around the world; a recent study focused on developing a better understanding of this illness and how it could potentially be treated using stem cell therapy. It is important to note that unlike other causes of blindness that may be genetic in nature or linked to disease processes (such as vision problems linked to diabetes) limbal stem cell deficiency blindness is mechanical in nature. It is often caused by excessive exposure to heat and chemicals. (In certain unusual situations, it may be caused by diseases processes, such as aniridia). In addition to eyesight impairment, limbal stem cell deficiency can cause a wide range of other issues, including redness and pain in the eyes.
Limbal stem cell deficiency generally impacts the patient’s cornea. And, if it is the cornea that is being impacted, then treatment options should focus on the cornea. However, many treatment interventions have proven unsuccessful for these patients. Recognizing this, researchers at the University of Edinburgh launched a new study. As part of this study, stem cells were harvested from the corneas of cadavers (deceased patients had agreed to donate their organs for medical purposes). This harvesting process was not easy; only a small percentage of cornea cells are stem cells and even fewer are limbal stem cells that would potentially be useful in treating this disease. Once a sufficient number of stem cells were harvested, transplants were prepared. Prior to transplants, the patient will need to be prepared so that he/she does not reject these transplanted cells. This process usually involves giving the patient immunosuppressive therapy.
Initial results from this University of Edinburgh study were highly promising. However, it is worth noting that the sample size for this research study was extremely small, only 16 patients participated. Half of these patients received the transplanted stem cells and the other half were part of the control group. This means that the results have only been demonstrated for eight patients; it is difficult to draw meaningful conclusions from a sample of this size. More research needs to be carried out with a broad range of impacted patients, so that researchers can have confidence in the efficacy of this treatment over a broad population base.
Additional Promising Results
The Limbal Stem Cell Deficiency study was not the only promising study that has been recently released. At almost the same time, a researcher at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis released the findings of his study that explored the development of retinal ganglion cells, attempting to better understand how these cells function in the real world. These retinal ganglion cells may be important in a wide range of vision challenges, but they are particularly impactful when one is considering glaucoma (one of the most common causes of blindness worldwide). In fact research shows that glaucoma is the second most common cause of blindness). A better understanding of retinal ganglion cells will help generate a better understanding of the glaucoma disease process. This understanding will ideally foster the development of a wide range of treatment options. According to Jason Meyer, the study’s lead scientist, stem cells provide insight into glaucoma because “glaucoma doesn’t develop in immature cells that are still growing; we want to get the cells we study as close as possible to the stage when they start to develop problems.” Stem cells closely mirror these conditions better than any other type of cell, providing researchers with insight and flexibility.
In recent years, there has been a dramatic explosion in stem cell technologies and treatment modalities that use stem cells. However, these treatments have tended to focus on only a handful of medical issues, such as orthopedic issues and cancers. Vision challenges have largely been overlooked. However, researchers around the world are beginning to recognize that traditional treatment options have not successfully addressed blindness; and that blindness and visual challenges negatively impact people’s quality of life. Due to this, researchers are looking at ways that stem cell treatments can be extended to more effectively treat blindness. Some of the preliminary research has been very promising, but these treatment methods need to be extended to a wider patient population for there to be confidence in efficacy.
Learn More About Stem Cell Therapy
Download our FREE Stem Cell Report
Click below to download our free educational report, Stem Cell 101!