What’s the deal with stem cells and how can they potentially help Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD)?
By Dr. Joshua Mali
So, what’s the deal with stem cells? It seems like a buzzword phrase that is used commonly in the news media but what are they and why should you care about them? Well, let’s begin:
What are stem cells?
Stem cells are cells that can be used to either replace completely or rejuvenate existing cells in the retina to help improve function. Typically, stem cells can be directed towards any organ in the body so that’s why now they are being tried for patients with damage to the retina. The key cell in the retina that is targeted is the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) which is critical to the health of the retina. This is also the cell that is damaged over time in AMD.
How do stem cells work to possibly help AMD?
RPE stem cells can either help produce factors that improve function of the existing early damaged cells (earlier AMD) or replace severely damaged RPE cells in later stage AMD. Theoretically, it can be used for both wet AMD or dry AMD.
What this means for the future treatment of AMD?
The future of AMD treatment is bright with this strategy and the possibilities are endless. For advanced dry AMD with geographic atrophy, stem cells could replace the damaged tissue. For wet AMD, patients with extensive disciform scarring may benefit from replacement of these scarred retinal cells. Either way, the goal is to regain function of the RPE cells to improve visual outcomes in patients with AMD. While still in early trials to test the efficacy and safety of the treatment, stem cells are a promising treatment for AMD.
Joshua Mali, MD, is a board-certified ophthalmologist and award-winning vitreoretinal surgeon at The Eye Associates, a private multi-specialty ophthalmology practice in Sarasota, Florida. He is the Retina Medical Director of the Macular Degeneration Association (MDA).