Researchers Look to Stem Cells for Diabetic Blindness Treatment

Patients with diabetes face a variety of health challenges as a result of their condition, including diabetic blindness. A team of researchers at the University of Virginia is working with stem cells to try and prevent loss of vision in these patients due to diabetic retinopathy.

Patients with diabetes face a variety of health challenges as a result of their condition, including diabetic blindness. A team of researchers at the University of Virginia is working with stem cells to try and prevent loss of vision in these patients due to diabetic retinopathy.

A statement from the school noted that the researchers have not only determined that stem cells would be effective in this role, but also the best form of cells for the potential treatment. The early research findings were published in Stem Cells Translational Medicine. According to the researchers, the best source is from patients not currently diagnosed with diabetes, even more so than repurposing the patient’s own cells.

Paul Yates, MD, a researcher and ophthalmologist with the program, said the research “answers a vital question” in the treatment of the condition. “If we’re going to carry this therapy forward into clinical trials, where are we going to get the best bang for our buck?”

Yates noted that it was “not terribly surprising” that the patients’ own stem cells were not as effective in the treatment, “because we already know that this cell type is damaged by diabetes.”

In a potential trial the researchers said they would like to use cells from liposuction procedures, which the statement said requires a deeper understanding of finding the ideal cells. “We now know what to look for when we harvest a patient’s cells because we know what distinguishes good quality cells form poor quality,” said Shayn M. Peirce, a researcher in the school’s biomedical engineering department. “We almost have a screen to determine quality control. We’re essentially establishing quality-control criteria by understanding what works and why.”

It is estimated there are more than 100 million people worldwide who have diabetic retinopathy or a similar condition with limited viable treatment options. Current treatment options leave much to be desired; patients can opt for laser treatments which have been shown to damage the retina or receive monthly injections in the eye.

“There’s huge room for improvement on the standard of care, and the number of patients in this demographic is increasing by the day, dramatically, so the need is only going up,” Pierce said. The researchers said their efforts are being bolstered by the work already done by the institution, FDA encouragement to develop stem cell research in the eye, and the current lack of viable treatment options.

The project is not yet up to the clinical research stage but the team hopes to begin human trials “within the next few years,” according to the statement.

“This is not science fiction at all,” Yates added. “The idea that you can take cells from somewhere else and inject them into the eye to treat disease is here today.”