Stem cells and the future of eye treatment

For patients with retinal and optic nerve conditions, new hope—and new sight—may come from stem cell therapy.

"Optometrists will be watching this research field closely."

A trio of top researchers offered an overview of promising stem cell research during the "Today's Practice, Tomorrow's Research" session Oct. 23 at the 92nd annual meeting of the American Academy of Optometry (AAO) in Seattle.

"Optometrists will be watching this research field closely, as it has numerous implications for patients they diagnose, treat and co-manage every day," said Beth Kneib, O.D., director of the AOA Clinical Resources Group.

The state of stem cell research

Basic research in recent years has led to better understanding of stem cell differentiation, or the process by which they become specialized cells, reported Amander T. Clark, Ph.D. The cell biologist and geneticist from the University of California-Los Angeles and Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Medicine also noted an increased focus on the ocular transplantation of cells.

As a result of better understanding, several eye disease treatments are currently in clinical trials.

Much current work centers around using stem cells to regrow retinal or optic nerve tissue lost to degenerative posterior segment diseases, noted Jeffrey Goldberg, M.D., professor and director of research at the Shiley Eye Center at the University of California-San Diego.

For example, stem cell therapies may offer a way to regenerate retinal pigment epithelial cells in patients with Stargardt Disease or dry age-related macular degeneration (AMD). They also may help restore retinal ganglion cells in glaucoma patients.

What comes next

Researchers are increasingly interested in stem cell therapy as a potential treatment for anterior segment conditions, too, said Victor L. Perez, M.D., associate professor of ophthalmology at the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute.

"Because the corneal surface is directly accessible, we can readily study stem cell biology and develop novel cell replacement therapies," the three researchers noted in an overview of their presentation.

The rehabilitation of patients with limbal stem cell deficiency is another promising area, and treatments for corneal conditions are anticipated in the near future, Dr. Perez said.

November 4, 2013

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