How a tiny patch is helping restore lasting vision

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Researchers are working on a stem cell-based retinal implant that could be used for people with with advanced dry age-related macular degeneration. (Photo/ Britney O. Pennington)

When Anna Kuehl began losing her vision, she feared losing the ability to read and go on long walks in nature—two of her favorite pastimes. Anna had been diagnosed with age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of vision loss in the US. She lost the central vision in her left eye, which meant she could no longer make out people’s faces clearly, drive a car, or read the time on her watch.

Anna Kuehl

But a clinical trial funded by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine  (CIRM) helped change that. And now, new data from that trial shows the treatment appears to be long lasting.

The treatment sprang out of research done by Dr. Mark Humayun and his team at USC. In collaboration with Regenerative Patch Technologies they developed a stem cell-derived implant using cells from a healthy donor. The implant was then placed under the retina in the back of the eye. The hope was those stem cells would then repair and replace damaged cells and restore some vision.

Dr. Mark Humayun, photo courtesy USC

In the past, using donor cells meant that patients often had to be given long-term immunosuppression to stop their body’s immune system attacking and destroying the patch. But in this trial, the patients were given just two months of immunosuppression, shortly before and after the implant procedure.

In a news story on the USC website, Dr. Humayun said this was an important advantage. “There’s been some debate on whether stem cells derived from a different, unrelated person would survive in the retina without long-term immunosuppression. For instance, if you were to receive a kidney transplant, long-term immunosuppression would be required to prevent organ rejection. This study indicates the cells on the retinal implant can survive for up to two years without long-term immunosuppression.”

Cells show staying power

When one of the patients in the clinical trial died from unrelated causes two years after getting the implant, the research team were able to show that even with only limited immunosuppression, there was no evidence that the patient’s body was rejecting the donor cells.

“These findings show the implant can improve visual function in some patients who were legally-blind before treatment and that the cells on the implant survive and remain functional for at least two years despite not being matched with those of the patient,” Humayun said.

For Anna Kuehl, the results have been remarkable. She was able to read an additional 17 letters on a standard eye chart. Even more importantly, she is able to read again, and able to walk and enjoy nature again.

Dr. Humayun says the study—published in the journal Stem Cell Reports—may have implications for treating other vision-destroying diseases. “This study addresses the debate over the viability of using mismatched stem cells — this shows that a mismatched stem cell derived implant can be safe and viable over multiple years.”

CIRM funded trial for AMD shows promising results

This upcoming July is healthy vision month, a time to remember the importance of making vision and eye health a priority. It’s also a time to think about the approximately 12 million people, 40 and over in the United States, that have a vision impairment. Vision can be something that many of us take for granted, but losing even a portion of it can have a profound impact on our everyday life. It can impact your ability to do everyday things, from basic hygiene routines and driving to hobbies such as reading, writing, or watching a film.

It is because of this that CIRM has made vision related problems a priority, providing over $69 million in funding for six clinical trials related to vision loss. There is reason to be hopeful as these trials have demonstrated promising results. One of these trials, conducted by Regenerative Patch Technologies LLC (RPT), announced today results from its CIRM funded clinical trial ($16.3 million) for advanced, dry age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

AMD is a progressive disease resulting in death of the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE), an area of the eye that plays a key role in maintaining vision. Damage to the RPE causes distortion to central vision and eventually leads to legal blindness. Thanks to CIRM funding, RPT and scientists at the University of Southern California (USC) and UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) are growing specialized RPE cells from human embryonic stem cells (hESCs), placing them on a single layer scaffold, and implanting the combination device in the back of the eye to try to reverse the blindness caused by AMD.

One of the trial participants is Anna Kuehl, a USC alumna and avid nature lover. She was diagnosed with AMD in her mid 30s and gradually began losing the central vision in her left eye. Although her peripheral vision remained intact, she could no longer make out people’s faces clearly, drive a car, or read the time on her watch. This also meant she would have much more difficulty going on the nature hikes she enjoys so much. After receiving treatment, she noticed improvements in her vision.

Anna was not alone in these improvements post treatment. The implant, known as CPCB-RPE1, was delivered to the worst eye of 15 patients with AMD. All treated eyes were legally-blind having a best corrected visual acuity (BCVA) of 20/200 or worse (20/20 indicates perfect vision).

Patients in the clinical trial were assessed for visual function and the results were as follows:

  • At an average of 34 months post-implantation (range 12-48 months), 27% (4/15) showed a greater than 5 letter improvement in BCVA and 33% (5/15) remained stable with a BCVA within 5 letters of baseline value. The improvements ranged from 7-15 letters or 1-3 lines on an eye chart.
  • In contrast, BCVA in the fellow, untreated eye declined by more than 5 letters (range 8-21 letters or 1-4 lines on an eye chart) in 80% (12/15) of subjects. There was no improvement in BCVA in the untreated eye of any subject. 
  • The implant was delivered safely and remained stably in place throughout the trial.
  • Refinements to the implantation procedure during the trial further improved its efficiency and safety profile.

In a news release from RPT, Mark Humayun, M.D., Ph.D., founder and co-owner of RPT, Director of the USC Ginsburg Institute for Biomedical Therapeutics and Co-Director of the USC Roski Eye Institute, Keck Medicine of USC, had this to say about the trial results.

“The improvements in best corrected visual acuity observed in some eyes receiving the implant are very promising, especially considering the very late stage of their disease. Improvements in visual acuity are exceedingly rare in geographic atrophy as demonstrated by the large decline in vision in many of the untreated eyes which also had disease. There are currently no approved therapies for this level of advanced dry age-related macular degeneration”. 

The full presentation can be found on RPT’s website linked here.

Watch the video below to learn more about Anna’s story.