Could 3-D Retina Transplants Put a Stop to Degenerative Blindness?

More than two million Americans suffer from age-related macular degeneration (AMD). While AMD does not result in total blindness, it is the leading cause of vision loss among Americans age 50 and above, and it causes sufferers to slowly lose central vision and interferes with an individual’s ability to drive, read, write, recognize faces, and more. There is no cure for AMD, although doctors can prescribe treatments in an effort to slow its progression.

AMD is only one of several degenerative eye conditions that lead to vision loss for which there has been no cure since it is caused by the actual decay of structures within the eye. However, this may soon change thanks to a groundbreaking advance in medicine: the development of transplantable 3-D retinas.

A team of researchers at California-based AIVITA Biomedical led by CEO Hans Keirstead, PhD have successfully used human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) to develop a 3-D “retinal organoid” made of laminated retinal progenitor cells and retinal pigment epithelium (RPE). In preclinical studies, the researchers showed that, when injected into the eye, the organoid was able to form synaptic connections with existing tissue and thus restore vision.

“The cause for hope for transplanting a 3-D retina has never been greater,” Keirstead told Modern Retina. “We have been on a relatively long journey, but are now at a point where we will be walking along a well-articulated path that will lead us to the beginning of our first in-human study.”

Keirstead, who suspects that a clinical research phase for the 3-D retinas may be as soon as two years away, explained that AIVITA’s target population is patients with degenerative disease of the outer retina, like AMD or retinitis pigmentosa. The 3-D retinas can be transplanted in the patient’s eye to replace the diseased or non-functional photoreceptors and RPE and establish new, functional connections with the inner retina and restore lost vision.

Of course, there are still a number of challenges ahead of the researchers, and the retinas are still years away from becoming commercially available for patients. But the possibility that 3-D retinas could be viable for use in patients opens the door for millions of patients, potentially, to get their sight back.