Stem cell transplants stalled blindness in rats

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Nerve stem cell transplants may help slow the progression of macular degeneration, the most common cause of blindness in the developed world, U.S. researchers said on Monday.

They said putting nerve stem cells from StemCells Inc near the retinas of rats with a form of macular degeneration helped keep the disease from advancing to blindness for several months.

“These cells improve the chemical environment in the back of the eye,” said Ray Lund of the Casey Eye Institute at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, whose findings were presented at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in Chicago.

Lund said the mechanism is not clear, but he suspects that when immature nerve cells are placed near the retina, they produce growth factors that protect the cells from damage by the disease.

“It’s basically a chemical pump that is sitting in the right place and producing the right things,” Lund said in a telephone interview.

Where normally animals with eye disease lost their vision by three months old, rats that got the transplants kept their vision for at least seven months, he said.

“There is no evidence that they (the transplanted cells) do any damage,” Lund said, adding that the animals do not develop tumors, a key worry for stem cell transplants.


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