First trial results of human embryonic stem cells


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After more than a decade of waiting, the first results of a trial involving human embryonic stem cells have been published in a medical journal.

The Lancet reports how two women in the USA with eye disease were injected with stem cells and both apparently showed some slight improvement in vision. The company Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) says the patients are doing well four months on from the trial.

This is a significant moment because there has been so much expectation about human embryonic stem cells - which have the potential to turn into any tissue in the body.

It has been a controversial area of research in the United States. In 2001 President Bush imposed restrictions on federal funding for embryo research on moral grounds.

These were reversed by Barrack Obama in 2009.

You can read more about this area of research and about other types of stem cells here.

Study participant Julia Hawkins has Stargardt's disease

A previous trial involving spinal patients was abandoned by the US biotech firm Geron. The company said the safety trial had gone well and it had to stop the trial because of financial problems.

But the end result was that the data never made it into a peer reviewed journal.

That means the ACT trial is now the first official human embryonic stem cell trial to have reported.

One of the patients suffers from Stargardt's disease - which leads to progressive deterioration of vision. The other has age-related macular degeneration, the main cause of blindness in the developed world.

Both patients had such poor vision they were registered blind.

They both had retinal cells, derived from human embryonic stem cells, injected into the back of the eye.

After the treatment they showed some slight improvement in vision. You can read more about the trial here.

This has prompted one extraordinary newspaper headline: Once they were blind, now they see. Patients cured by stem cell 'miracle'.

I realise there is a lot of excitement about this area of research, but I would urge caution. The authors of the Lancet paper make no special claims about the study which was designed to show whether the treatment was safe.

They say: "So far, the cells seem to have transplanted into both patients without abnormal proliferation, teratoma formation, graft rejection, or other untoward pathological reactions or safety signals."

In other words the treatment did not appear to do any harm. Of particular concern was the risk of the cells forming tumours, which did not happen. This is enough to give scientists encouragement to continue the trials.

Although the study was simply designed to show safety, the researchers could not ignore the apparent slight improvement in vision of the two women.

But the authors say: "We are uncertain at this point whether any of the visual gains we have recorded were due to the transplanted cells, the use of immunosuppressive drugs, or a placebo effect."

That is crucial and shows why further larger trials are needed. As I've reported before, the European arm of this trial is being conducted at Moorfields Hospital in London.

The first British patient - a man with Stargardt's disease - was treated last week. Again, this was a safety trial rather than an attempt to improve vision.

So there is a long way to go before there's talk of miracle treatments and curing blindness.

Fergus Walsh, Medical correspondent Article written by Fergus Walsh Fergus Walsh Medical correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    I do think that there is far too much medical intervention. Continued growth & development is environmental disaster & causes climate change, what for example is the carbon footprint of increased life expectancy? How much rainforest must be cleared to feed the retired? We should be in harmony with the earth & let disease run its course.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    I'm sorry Wolfie but I have to disagree whole heartedly- this is nature taking it's course. Bit of GCSE biology here- there's lots of chickens (resources) so foxes have lots of food so there becomes lots of foxes. Then there isn't enough chickens to go around so there becomes less foxes and more chickens. Rinse and repeat.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    You are against medical intervention? I will assume you are over 40. Some centuries ago, that would have been considered a reasonably long lifespan. It is only with what was once considered risky medical experiments has our (healthy) lifespan increased to the point where 2/3 of the people who have ever reached the age of 65 are alive today.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    So - after all that time and money, embryo stem cell research may have come up with something that - gosh! - does not seem to do any harm. I suppose that's better than the previous disasters.

    Why so much obsession about embryo stem cells? Would it not have been better to invest the time, energy and money on further adult stem cell research, which already has a number of successes under its belt?

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    I have been observing a friend and a colleague both loosing their sight (with macular and retinal deteriorations) for a few years and know the loss they are progressively suffering so any effective treatment must be a good thing - it would certainly make me being a passenger in their cars feel a lot safer! (Neither drives at night or is as aware as I am about movements in their peripheral vision)

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    There are those who view the collection of embryonic stem cells with distaste, taking the view that they can only come from foetuses. This is not the case. Another source is routinely incinerated all over the developed world. Placental blood contains them, and is available in much greater quantities.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    @Wolfiewoods - if god forbid your own child becomes critically ill, will you volunteer to "let the earth and disease run its course" ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    btw, Fergus - the headline "First trial results of human embryonic stem cells" is decidedly inaccurate - in fact, plain wrong. This is far from the first such trial. Surely "First non-disastrous human embryonic stem cell trial" would have been more accurate? Previous trials have been abandoned when the patients erupted in teratomas; in short, they made things much, much worse - did they not?

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    4.RuariJM - "........Why so much obsession about embryo stem cells? Would it not have been better to invest the time, energy and money on further adult stem cell research, which already has a number of successes under its belt?"

    To be correct that would have to read "some very limited successes". Work continues in that field but as it stands embryo SCs are much more promising.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Hey Wolfiewoods! When you or your loved ones are suffering from cancer or some other debilitating, incurable disease, let's hear your opinions again!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Interesting, but why such excitement over embryonic stem cells, with attendant ethical controversy, while there are a lot more trials with adult stem cells that are effective. Adult stem cell work has to be the way to go - not controversial and works better. However it isn't trendy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    How nice to have some positive news for a change, even if it is only a safety check.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    51-year-old graphic artist was legally blind. She suffered from Stargardt's disease. Second patient, age 78, suffered from dry macular degeneration - leading cause of blindness in the elderly. But after being treated with stem cells from donated human embryo, both women have improved dramatically.
    This is good science; bad science makes drones, bombs...

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    I hope this horrible use of human life as raw material is halted. I hope also that the self-righteous rubbish about 'curing diseases' is exposed for what it is - an obsession with efficiency. People should realise that science is not autonomous. It is guided by economic and ideological forces.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Week after having cells injected into her eye, graphic artist could count fingers; after one month she could read the top five letters on the eye chart. She can see more colour/contrast, has started using her computer. 2cd patient - dry macular degeneration -recently went to the mall for the first time in years.
    This is good science; bad science produces genetically-modified crops.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    wolfie.... you mention that an increased life expectancy will increase our carbon footprint and the forests of earth will get less and less..

    I would like to ask you: if a trees falls in a forest and there is no-one around, does it make a sound?

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    If everyone expects blind to see after being treated, stem-cell treatment will disappoint. Nevertheless, advocates are hailing results. At last, they see fruits of human embryonic stem cell research in clinical trials. ACT is only company currently testing human embryonic stem cells in patients.
    This is good science. Bad science uses depleted uranium.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    I agree with wolfiewoods.We do to much with medical intervention.You think how many people are alive now that shouldn't be,passing on their defective genes to the next gen and slowly turning the human race into a lazy,thick,ill and obese joke of a species.natural selection has been killed off by modern medicine and that's not a good thing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Another concern is transplanting cells derived from human embryos could be rejected. ACT team got around that by using eye, which is an "immunoprivileged" site. Primary purpose: to determine whether the implanted cells caused harm. So far, neither patient has experienced inflammation - indication of rejection.
    The is good science. Bad science buys organs from "red" market.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    I am pleased to see this positive research. Bill Walker is correct that Umbilical cord blood does contain a high concentration of stem cells. Even the "adult" stem cells in UC blood are more suitable than those found in an adult body. If we all stored UC blood from birth, everybody would have a personalised supply of Stem cells. However, mass storage has its own issues.


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