ORIA Grant Update: Dr Fred Chen Paves the Way for Stem Cell Therapy for Age-related Macular Degeneration

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is currently one of the most common causes of blindness worldwide. Each year, over 2,500 individuals are registered blind in Australia and two thirds of these people are blinded by AMD. Currently there is no treatment to replace the damaged cells that cause blindness in AMD patients. In 2017, the Ophthalmic Research Institute of Australia (ORIA) awarded Dr Fred Chen the Richard and Ina Humbley Foundation Grant of $50,000 to investigate new ways to treat AMD by replacing the damaged cells that cause vison loss in AMD patients.

With this grant, Dr Fred Chen and his team at Lions Eye Institute, Perth, explored the possibility of using an easily accessible source of human adult nerve stem cells to restore the damaged eye cells. For over two decades, stem cells on the surface of the front of the eye have been used in clinics and the procedure for harvesting these cells is simple and safe. As a result of their research, Dr Chen and his team were able to show that these stem cells obtained from the left over donor eye tissue returned to the Lions Eye Bank can be grown into cells that behave like nerve stem cells in a petri dish. Building upon this new evidence, the research team began to investigate whether this could be used as a treatment for replacing damaged cells in diseases like AMD.

Thanks to ORIA funding and Lions Eye Bank, the research team were able to demonstrate that an easily accessible source of cell from the patient’s own eye can potentially be used to prevent further retinal cell loss. This finding confirmed results from previous studies using human nerve stem cells. The research team’s work has opened up new possibilities for future ophthalmic research into cell replacement to treat AMD and restore vision.

The results of the study were published in RANZCO’s scientific journal, Clinical and Experimental Ophthalmology.