Stem cell therapy for vision loss: experts discuss research progress

Retinal pigment epithelium derived from human embryonic stem cells. David Buchholz and Sherry Hikita / University of California, Santa Barbara

There are many great reasons for working at CIRM. The work is clearly tremendously important; the people who work here are super smart and passionate about what they do; and there are lots of great coffee shops within easy walking distance. But one thing you don’t often find at the stem cell agency is instant gratification. Scientific research is not a field to go into if you are looking for easy or fast results. Success is usually measured in years, and sometimes decades.

That’s why what happened last week was so terrific. We held a webinar that focused on stem cell research and the eye, with a particular focus on the most common form of blindness called macular degeneration. These kinds of webinars are important for CIRM because they bring together a wide array of scientific, academic, government and industry experts who are eager to talk about the kind of work that they do, sharing the lessons they’ve learned, and interact with the webinar participants who are trying to learn and benefit from each others’ experience in doing this kind of research (we’ve done several of these webinars in the past two years and all of them available to watch on our website). The hope is that these kinds of interactions can help drive the science forward in a faster, more focused manner.

These webinars are always interesting, but this turned out to be even more so than normal. To start with more than 300 people registered for it, (typically around 200 sign up) and almost 250 of those actually attended online. And it didn’t just include those professionally involved in research into diseases of the eye and potential stem cell therapies, it also included members of the public and patient advocates. In other words the people who had the most to gain from progress in that research. Their joining the webinar told us that our efforts to reach out beyond the scientific community, to engage everyone with a real interest in this kind of research, is paying off.

As we always do after webinars like this we asked participants to fill out a survey to let us know what they thought of the program and how we could improve it in the future. What was particularly delightful were the number of highly complimentary remarks people took the time to write. They included:

“Online webinar is an amazing idea! Thank you for making it easy for me to learn from some of the best in the field.”

“Very appreciative for the work conducted and would like to see this field of study more openly discussed and presented to the public.”

“Glad to see my tax dollars are doing something worthwhile.” (honest, we didn’t write that one ourselves)

“Great job keeping the communications lines open.”

For the staff who organized it these responses were wonderful tributes, recognition that not only had they done a good job putting the program together but that it really helped those who listened in (98% of those thought the webinar was helpful, 61% thought it Very Helpful – the highest category)

Now, that may not seem like a big deal to some people, but when your job is one that measures success in the long term, to get a little short term boost is quite delightful. It makes you feel that the work you do is appreciated, and is making a difference. And I don’t care what you do for a living, when you feel that what you do is appreciated and has value to others that’s a great incentive to keep doing it, and to do an even better job in the future.

If you missed the webinar but are interested in learning about approaches to treating vision loss with stem cells we make the presentations, audio, and the questions and answers publicly available after the session, we hope you will take a look – it doesn’t require any registration to check out our public website. Let us know what you think!

Our website also has a list of all the awards CIRM funds focusing on vision loss and a vision loss fact sheet

K.M.

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