Improving people’s sight

Special Interest

8 September 2021

Photo by Johnny Cohen on Unsplash

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) typically affects people over 50 years old and is the most common cause of sight loss in the developed world. AMD progresses slowly in some and quickly in others, and in most cases, it makes it difficult for people to see faces clearly and go about many of life’s daily activities, such as driving and reading.

Sadly, there are no current treatments for the dry form of AMD – representing over 90 per cent of cases, and the number of people affected by all types of AMD is expected to triple within the next 10-20 years. “The fact is, once the nerves in the retina start to be damaged through disease, they don’t regrow,” says Professor Lyndon da Cruz, a retinal surgeon at Moorfields Eye Hospital and professor at the University College London (UCL) Institute of Ophthalmology. “So, people lose their central and high-quality vision. It would be powerful if we could put back what’s missing.”

The London Project to Cure Blindness, a partnership between Moorfields Eye Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology (in the UK) and the Center for the Study of Macular Degeneration (in the US), is a large research programme that began in 2008. The programme is led by Professor Lyndon da Cruz, and Pete Coffey, a professor at the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology, and aims to use stem cell therapy to replace damaged components of the macula (the central part of the retina) with new, engineered ones to restore vision.

“The revolution in stem cell treatment has allowed us to carry out our research. For the first time, we have a certain group of cells that we can manipulate to allow us to grow any cell we want,” said Professor Da Cruz.

In the first stage of the London Project to Cure Blindness, the research team replaced damaged cells with surgically implanted cells in the form of a biological patch into two patients suffering from late stage AMD. Remarkably, both patients recovered their sight and showed no side effects.

“In the months before the operation my sight was really poor, and I couldn’t see anything out of my right eye. After the surgery, my eyesight improved to the point where I can now read the newspaper and help my wife out with the gardening,” said Douglas Waters, one of the patients to undergo the surgical trial.

Because of the profound success of these surgical trials, the researchers plan to perform the same surgeries on eight additional patients before seeking approval for implementation into clinical practice. If these additional surgeries also prove successful, there is tremendous potential to help millions of people around the world treat their AMD.

“With a single operation, we can deliver the treatment, and that’s it for the patient,” said Professor Da Cruz at Moorfield’s Eye Hospital.

Despite this great success, the surgery performed on Douglas would be ineffective for individuals suffering from the end stage of AMD – the stage right before irreversible blindness occurs when the light responsive cells essentially die. Oak is therefore supporting the efforts of researchers from the London Project to Cure Blindness through Moorfields Eye Charity to engineer a more sophisticated biological patch that would be able to treat end-stage AMD. 

The ability to see is something we often take for granted that has a dramatic effect on our everyday lives. Oak clearly sees the importance of sight and is proud to support researchers working to bring better sight to so many people. This grant falls under our Special Interest Programme, which reflects the Trustees’ interests in making dynamic, diverse, large, innovative, and challenging grants. You can watch our video on the London Project to Cure Blindness here and read more about our Special Interest Programme here. To learn more about Moorfield’s Eye Charity, visit its website here.

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