Would you rather be deaf or blind? It’s one of those typical, fun, “get to know a person" questions that you have been asked more than once in your lifetime. And let’s be honest, who would want to be either of those? Could you even imagine your life without your eyesight or hearing? Personally, I think I would rather be deaf than blind, but that's just me! I could not imagine my life without being able to see things because I am an extremely visual person. However, some people are not even fortunate enough to know what it's like to be able to see. Although some people are born blind, it’s not uncommon for adults to lose their eyesight with age. It’s a sad thought to think that as we get older, we have the chance of losing our visual perception. It would be extremely frustrating to even have distorted vision that you know cannot be fixed. I mean, who wants to deal with poor vision as they get older? Not me, that’s for sure. So, why am I even bringing this up? Science of course! Just another study about stem cells, but don’t worry this is nothing boring. It’s actually great research that can greatly affect us in the future!
This is an exciting study because it is one of the first to show evidence that stem cells can help certain patients by directly testing it on humans. Finally, a study that provides results from actual human tests rather than laboratory tests on animals! So what was this all about? Well, as we age, degeneration of the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) in our eyes can lead to photoreceptor loss, which results in diseases including Stargardt’s macular dystrophy and dry age-related macular degeneration. Stargardt’s macular dystrophy is the most common pediatric macular degeneration, while dry age-related macular degeneration is the leading cause of blindness among adults. Basically, macular degeneration is simply a disease that destroys your central vision, which is what you need to see things clearly and do simple tasks like reading and driving. Check out the image below. Could you even imagine developing something like this that you know is untreatable? Scary thought. I guess that’s what we have scientists for though, right?!
Well, scientists at UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute wanted to look more into stem cell research to possibly figure out a way to help treat this unfortunate disease, so they found a way to use embryonic stem cells to create RPE cells in the lab. However, Steven D. Schwartz, professor at ophthalmology at UCLA who was leading the research, stressed that the study was primarily designed to determine whether using the cells were safe and not to actually determine whether they would help the patient. They were concerned that the injection of stem cells anywhere in the body, the eye in this case, could cause tumor formation. Fortunately for these guys, they found that the two patients who received the stem cells demonstrated impressive results. The stem cells injected in both patients seemed to have survived well as RPE cells and did not form any tumors, or any other irregular growths or concerns. Another plus, both patients reported that they had improved vision. How exciting!
Unfortunately, because the scientific world is always oh so cautious, the researchers cannot make any firm conclusions on this study since it was only tested on two patients who have only been tracked for a short period of time. Now all we can do is wait! Only more time and tons more research (of course) will tell if this study holds true to its results.
It’s somewhat frustrating to think that a study like this, which almost seems like a complete breakthrough, has to be downplayed until more research is done. I guess that’s just research for you, and we can only hope that more research can be done as quickly as possible so that we will actually be able to use stem cell treatment one of these days for diseases like macular degeneration!
For more information, you can read the full article here: Embryonic stem cell trials for macular degeneration: a preliminary report
To see a great image of how the treatment works and to read more about it, click here: NPR's Health Blog
Also, more information on Macular Degeneration
I went about writing about this article in an informal, conversational manner. I attempted to use the "arouse and fulfill" method by starting off with a paragraph that anyone could relate to. By starting off talking about imagining life being blind, I was drawing in the reader so that they would actually be interested in the research I was about to discuss. I also tried to write in a storytelling manner to keep the readers attention and tried to explain everything so that anyone would be able to understand it, not just science students.