Europe's first embryonic stem cell trial at Moorfields

Julia Hawkins having her eyes tested Julia Hawkins has Stargardt's disease

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From the age of five Julia Hawkins has been losing her sight. She has Stargardt's disease, a form of macular degeneration.

Her central vision has almost entirely disappeared, leaving her with only peripheral vision.

She has to use a magnifier to read - but the vision loss does not prevent her getting about.

She negotiated the train and London tube network on Thursday to get to Moorfields Eye Hospital in London from her home in Berkshire.

British regulators have given Moorfields approval to begin trials using retinal cells derived from human embryonic stem cells (hESCs).

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The real benefit would be for children. It could mean they don't need to lose any sight and have normal vision."”

End Quote Julia Hawkins Patient with Stargardt's disease

Twelve patients with Stargardt's disease will have the cells injected into the eye. You can read more about the trial here.

Although there is great excitement about the trial, Julia knows that the initial phase will simply check safety.

Larger doses of the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) cells would be used in later studies only if the treatment was deemed to be safe.


"It would be marvellous if I could get some of my sight-loss reversed", said Julia. "Even if it simply halts the deterioration, that would be great. And the real benefit would be for children. It could mean they don't need to lose any sight and have normal vision."

But doctors are urging caution. They are aware that there has been a lot of hype surrounding human embryonic stem cells, because of their potential to turn into any of the 200 or so cell types in the body.

Talk of replacing diseased tissue and even growing whole replacement organs has been commonplace.

But it is only now that the therapies are being tested in patients.

In California, the bio-tech firm Geron has begun safety trials of hESCs-derived cells in patients with spinal injuries.

The Moorfields trial is a partnership with another American firm, Advanced Cell Technology, which has already treated some patients with Stargardt's disease.


It is always worth pointing out that other forms of stem cell treatments have been used successfully for many years.

Bone marrow transplantation is a well-established and proven technology.

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Of course we must look for cures for degenerative eye diseases, but not if the unethical trade-off is the destruction of viable human embryos.”

End Quote Josephine Quintavalle Comment on Reproductive Ethics

More recently, stem cells from a patient's own bone marrow have been used to help create them a new windpipe.

Contrast that with human embryonic stem cells, which have yet to prove themselves in patient trials. Which is why the Moorfields study is potentially important in testing this technology.

It remains controversial. The creation of a stem cell line this way begins with the destruction of a donated human embryo at the blastocyst stage, when it is a small clump of cells.

The cell line that results is, in effect, "immortal", in the sense that it can continue to produce cells indefinitely.

Those opposed to embryo research on moral or religious grounds would prefer research on adult-derived stem cells, such as those found in bone marrow.

Scientists can also now create stem cells without destroying embryos, so-called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells but these have yet to make it into patients.


Josephine Quintavalle from Comment on Reproductive Ethics said: "That vulnerable UK patients will be used in highly experimental treatment which would be prohibited in most of the rest of the world is not something to triumph. Of course we must look for cures for degenerative eye diseases, but not if the unethical trade-off is the destruction of viable human embryos."

Scientists involved in this new field of medicine believe the Moorfields trial is a significant moment.

Chris Mason, Professor of Regenerative Medicine at University College London points out that it was only 13 years ago that scientists discovered a method to derive stem cells from human embryos and grow them in the laboratory.

He said: "New therapies can often take 10 or 20 years to get to market, so we are about half-way through the process".

Professor Roger Pederson, Professor of Regenerative Medicine, University of Cambridge, was also upbeat.

He said: "These stem cells are capable of forming all body tissues, and it is possible that the retinal cells formed from them will be useful in preventing age-related blindness as well as in treating certain genetic eye diseases. I believe we will now see increasing numbers of such trials in the US and UK."

So after all the talk about human embryonic stem cells, before too long we should have hard evidence as to whether the hype and the promise have been justified.

Fergus Walsh Article written by Fergus Walsh Fergus Walsh Medical correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    @Aylesbury –Your ad hominem insult against me personally speaks volumes about where you are coming from. If you don’t think human rights should be applied to all humans then explain why.
    I can assure you that I am far from ignorant of what it means to live with a degenerative condition. If you wish to show how the end does in fact justify the means then let’s hear it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    I'm sympathetic with anyone who objects to treatment derived from ESC on religious, ethical or other reasons. If they (or their loved ones) require ESC based treatment for any catastrophic ailment e.g. Parkinsons, Muscular Dystrophy, Retinitis Pigmentosa, Spinal injury etc. they should refuse the opportunity. But they shouldn't seek to impose their morality on others that don't share their views

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Retinal degeneration due to genetic, diabetic and age-related disease is the most common cause of blindness in the developed world.

    But there are huge ethical problems with using embryonic stem cells and advances in reprogramming adult cells have shown how autologous stem cells for can be generated for transplantation without the need for an embryo donor.


  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    @Pax,you comment is very shallow and at the very least Ignorant.I have Muscular Dystrophy,Stem cell research and it's progress is my only hope,I have 3 girls and a wife that can see me dying in front of them so i am hoping and praying that this progresses further,faster.God forbid yourself,any of your friends or family get diagnosed with a progressive illness,for i would not wish this on ANYONE.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Recently stem cells from a patient's own bone marrow helped create a new windpipe. Difference - use of human embryonic stem cells, which under right conditions would produce a living being. Though this differentiation concerns many persons, I am not one; in fact, unused, unneeded human embryonic stem cells out not to remain frozen, but with consent of all parties, should be used.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    I am extremely uncomfortable with using embryonic stem cells but thenn I am fortunate enough not to have any disease that might require it's use. Wonder how I would feel if I or any of those I love, did!

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    If "human rights" are to mean anything then they have to be applied to all humans, regardless of arbitrary discriminations based on age, sex, ethnicity or developmental stage of biology.

    That human embryos are allowed to be used in this way is deplorable. In short, the honourable end does not justify this highly dishonourable means.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    I hope all their trials are sucessful and more people can enjoy seeing.



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