An 80-year-old woman has become the first person in the world successfully treated with iPS stem cells, the star of regenerative medicine. These cells, which are generated from the patient’s own skin, have the ability to become any tissue, be they neurons, heart or muscle cells and do not raise any ethical suspicion. In this case they were obtained to manufacture cells of the retina with which to do a transplant and to stop a form of progressive blindness, macular degeneration.
Two years ago the Riken Institute of Japan announced the completion of this pioneering transplant, now published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The transplant has not returned the vision to the treated patient 100%, but it has managed to stop the progression of the disease. At this time he has lost no more vision and the one he has is «more luminous,» as he explained to his doctors.
Macular degeneration is the leading cause of blindness in the world’s population and there is still no cure. Those who suffer from it suffer the progressive destruction of central and acute vision, which makes it difficult to read and display details accurately. Little by little they are running out of vision until they reach the most complete darkness.
To curb their advance, scientists at the Riken Institute first removed the tissue from the retina that was destroying their vision, then grafted a small patch with the new retinal pigment epithelium cells generated. Two years after the transplant, the treated woman’s vision did not worsen, which points to a stabilization of the disease.
No risk of cancer
Another good news is that no signs of cancer have been detected, one of the biggest concerns before doing the transplant. Since Shinya Yamanaka in 2007 discovered the iPS cells and opened the door to regenerative medicine, one of the fears was that the tissues generated with these cells could generate tumors. In this case there are no signs of this, but two years ago the Riken Institute stopped a similar transplant in another patient, after some analysis revealed that the cells that were to be transplanted had developed genetic abnormalities. This failure is also counted in the research just published.
Yamanaka has applauded the results of this first work of the Riken Institute. And he sees in him the proof that the use of iPS in many other diseases is not a chimera.
The danger of uncontrolled therapies
But the same magazine where this new breakthrough is published carries another article denouncing the risk of using these cellular therapies without any control. She tells how in a private clinic in Florida three women with macular degeneration went blind after being treated with stem cells. In this case, the treatment was performed without authorization and without the cautions that are required in a clinical trial such as the one performed by the Japanese institute.