3 Women Blinded After Stem Cell Therapy

Two papers highlight both the promise and peril of using stem cells to tackle disease
By Elizabeth Armstrong Moore,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 16, 2017 8:45 PM CDT
   (Getty Images/ozgurdonmaz)

(Newser) – At the cutting edge of medical science, stem cell therapy holds tremendous potential. But it's still relatively new, and it still needs to be studied vigorously for safety and efficacy as it pertains to a wide range of health issues. Two dramatically different new reports further highlight the need for more research and perhaps regulation, NPR reports. In the first, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers report on three elderly women who had stem cells derived from fat tissue injected directly into their eyes at a for-profit clinic in Florida in an attempt to treat macular degeneration. They each paid $5,000 for the unproven approach, meant to treat the most common cause of blindness in the elderly; instead, they went blind. One doctor warns that if something "sounds too good to be true," it "may even be horrible."

In stark contrast, a study out of Japan, also published in the New England Journal of Medicine, reports on the promise of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells), which can be made using any cell in the body to create cells that resemble embryonic stem cells. Japanese researchers converted these stem cells into retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) cells, which macular degeneration destroys, injected them into one eye of a patient, and found that the progression of the disease stopped altogether—a "really remarkable medical advance," an outside researcher says. Other trials using iPE cells to treat diseases like Parkinson's will soon be underway, reports Science magazine, though a Japanese researcher cautions that diseases aren't likely to fully reverse: "Regenerative medicine is not going to cure patients in the way they hope." (Stem cells may help to halt multiple sclerosis, too.)

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