London surgeons carry out pioneering procedure for age-related macular degeneration, which affects 700,000 people in the UK.
A woman has become the first person in the UK to receive treatment using stem cells for age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the most common form of blindness.
The procedure was carried out by surgeons at Moorfields eye hospital in London, following research by scientists at University College London. A further nine patients will be treated over the next year and a half. A spokesperson for the Royal National Institute for the Blind described the news as a "great step forward" for blind people.
The patient suffers from so-called "wet" macular degeneration, in which blood vessels grow at the back of the retina, damaging the cells. This is the less common but more serious form of the disease, which causes a sudden loss of central vision.
The team behind the procedure are hopeful that it will also work for "dry" macular degeneration, which is caused by a buildup of chemical deposits. That form of the disease is far more common, but progresses more slowly.
In total more than 600,000 people in Britain have some form of the disease.
The new technique involves growing eye cells, known as retinal pigment epithelium cells, from stem cells taken from human embryos. These cells have the potential to be grown into any kind of cell in the human body. The eye cells are then implanted into the retina of the patient.
Professor Pete Coffey, one of the scientists behind the research, told the Guardian that he hoped it would soon be a routine operation: "We're trying to make it as straightforward as a cataract operation. It will probably take 45 minutes to an hour. We could treat a substantial number of those patients."
The outcome of the first surgery will not be known until December, but Coffey is hopeful that vision could be restored completely.
The research has been supported by the London Project to Cure Blindness, a joint project between Moorfields, the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR), and UCL's ophthalmology institute. Coffey is one of the founders of the project.
In a statement given to the Science Media Centre, Chris Mason, a professor of regenerative medicine at UCL, described the technique as "potentially a big step forward towards curing a major cause of blindness".
Further, he said, it could push forward the use of stem cells in other areas: "If the AMD trials are successful, then by using embryonic stem cells as the starting material, the therapy can then be affordably manufactured at large scale. This will enable all patients to benefit and not just be an expensive bespoke therapy for a select few."
Clare Eaglen, an RNIB spokesperson, said in a statement: "It is early days yet but this development does show that stem cells can be successfully transplanted into the eye, which is a great step forward."
A human retina showing macular scarring. ThinkStock