New research on stem cells provides hope for a potential treatment of glaucoma which could help the millions of people affected with the condition.

Irreversible blindness is most often caused by glaucoma in today’s world. About 1 in 50 people over the age of 40 in the UK struggle with glaucoma. The odds increase for people aged 75 years and older, affecting 1 in 10. Since the condition is age-related, it is becoming more prevalent as the UK population gets older.

Glaucoma is often an insidious, progressive condition which results in harm to the optic nerve. Once the person realizes that damage has been done, some of loss of vision has already taken place.

Risk factors associated with glaucoma include:

  • a weakness in the optic nerve
  • increased pressure in the eye

The research was funded by the medical research charity and was conducted by the UK Stem Cell Foundation, Professor Geoff Raisman and his team at University College London along with Professor Peng Khaw at Moorfields Eye Hospital (UCL NIHR BRC Helen Hamlyn Fight for Sight unit).

The team experimented with a potential treatment that involves using the patient’s own stem cells. Professor Raisman was able to halve the loss of optic nerve fibers caused by raised eye pressure by transferring a few olfactory ensheathing cells into the area of the optic nerve. This also caused reduced the harm to the optic nerve tissue.

The progression of glaucoma can be stopped by a few treatments, including medication and eye surgery to lower the pressure in the eye. One previous report indicated that eye drops containing nerve growth factor could halt glaucoma symptoms.

However, no therapies can treat vision loss, and unfortunately, the progression towards blindness cannot be prevented in a significant number of people.

This study increases the chance that a simple surgical procedure, using cells taken from the patient, could guide scientists to a future technique that could stop the horrible outcome of glaucoma, Professor Raisman said, even though the procedure is still at the experimental stage.

Professor Khaw added:

“Every week I see patients whose lives could be transformed if this research could be successfully translated through to full clinical use. The possibility of being able to “cure ourselves” with our own stem cells is exciting. When I tell my patients about the results of this research, it gives them great hope for the future.”

UK Stem Cell Foundation Chief Executive, Lil Shortland concluded:

“We are delighted with the results of this study, which offers real hope to millions whose sight has been damaged by glaucoma. This research now needs to be taken to clinical trial to enable it to become an accessible, safe and approved treatment for patients. We hope that the general public will help us to raise the funding needed to enable this to happen.”

Written by Sarah Glynn