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Myths and Meanings: Adult Stem Cell Research

SriniVas Sadda, MD

President & Chief Scientific Officer

One of the great frontiers of research in the quest to improve eye health involves stem cells. It’s exciting, but the terms are often confusing, and even controversial. Because I see this research as a vital avenue for our patients, I want to use this space to explain precisely how we conduct this research at Doheny Eye Institute, using only adult stem cells, not embryonic stem cells.

At this time, we know that adult stem cells are capable of regenerating and helping us grow tissues to replace damaged eye tissue. Already, stem cell transplants are successfully used to resurface damaged corneas. The prospects are even more intriguing in retina research, where pilot studies show that eyes receiving the adult stem cells also realized better contrast sensitivity and visual acuity, while no tumors appeared. This is enormously encouraging.

At Doheny, Dr. Ram Kannan is deeply engaged in this work, because we believe in the potential benefits. But exactly how much work these cells can do, and how well, is still the subject of tremendous research. We do know that because relatively few cells are needed to regenerate structures in the eye, and because the eye is not integral to the body’s immune system and is therefore less likely to reject cells, the potential to find solutions is good. Our capacity to understand the cutting-edge research and develop new approaches is aided by our colleagues at the Jules Stein UCLA Eye Institute, who can provide us with their data using embryonic stem cells. Our work is complementary in ways that stand to benefit our patients for years to come.

We know that non-embryonic stem cells can provide transformative solutions. We also know there are limits to this technology. Preliminary data suggest that adult stem cells are useful in retinal regeneration and that these cells introduce no adverse effects. But stem cells are not a panacea.

And while I’m enthusiastic, I’m also concerned that patients be realistic about what stem cell therapies can do. In other words, I’d like to caution that while optimism is in order, it’s also important to avoid being oversold on experimental approaches.

If you are interested in participating in a clinical trial, make sure it is a study that is registered and approved by the FDA by checking out clinicaltrial.gov.

My colleagues in the field are making exciting advances that point the way to answers for those facing age-related macular degeneration and other diseases of the eye. Together, we are working to bring the best solutions via best practices to eye patients around the world.

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