Find Information About:

Drugs & Supplements

Get information and reviews on prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, vitamins, and supplements. Search by name or medical condition.

Pill Identifier

Pill Identifier

Having trouble identifying your pills?

Enter the shape, color, or imprint of your prescription or OTC drug. Our pill identification tool will display pictures that you can compare to your pill.

Get Started
My Medicine

My Medicine

Save your medicine, check interactions, sign up for FDA alerts, create family profiles and more.

Get Started

WebMD Health Experts and Community

Talk to health experts and other people like you in WebMD's Communities. It's a safe forum where you can create or participate in support groups and discussions about health topics that interest you.

  • Second Opinion

    Second Opinion

    Read expert perspectives on popular health topics.

  • Community


    Connect with people like you, and get expert guidance on living a healthy life.

Got a health question? Get answers provided by leading organizations, doctors, and experts.

Get Answers

Sign up to receive WebMD's award-winning content delivered to your inbox.

Sign Up

Macular Degeneration Health Center

Font Size

Stem Cells: New Hope for Macular Degeneration

Embryonic Stem Cells Safe; Some Vision Gained in First 2 Patients Treated
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Jan. 23, 2012 -- Two legally blind women with macular degeneration are the first people ever to get new retina cells grown from human embryonic stem cells.

One patient has dry macular degeneration, the top cause of blindness in developed nations. The other has Stargardt's disease, the leading cause of macular degeneration in young people. Both diseases are untreatable. Both get progressively worse.

But instead of progressively losing more retinal cells, new cells are growing in the treated eyes. And while both women still have permanent central vision loss, both seem to see a little better.

"They do have some improvement in peripheral vision around the central blind spot, which is not coming back," study co-leader Steven D. Schwartz, MD, chief of the retina division at Los Angeles' Jules Stein Eye Institute, tells WebMD.

Schwartz warns that the stem cell treatment is being developed as a way to prevent blindness in people with early-stage macular degeneration. It's not a treatment for blindness, he says.

But to test the safety of this first-ever-in-humans treatment, the study enrolled patients with very advanced disease -- and very little vision to lose in case anything went wrong.

But the two patients did not get worse, says study co-leader Robert Lanza, MD. Lanza, a pioneer of stem cell research, is chief scientific officer for Advanced Cell Technology Inc., the company that is developing the treatment.

"Before treatment, one patient could only see hand motion. She could not read any letters [on an eye chart]," Lanza tells WebMD. "By one month she could read five letters. But that does not capture the difference in her life. She could see more color. She had better contrast in the operated eye and no improvement in untreated eye. She mentioned she could start using her computer and even start reading her watch."

Lanza and Schwartz warn that this improvement could simply be a placebo effect. They're only the first two of 24 patients in the study. And it's only a phase I study designed to test safety, not effectiveness.

"The real value of this report is what we're learning about stem cell biology, about the safety of the treatment, about the lack of immune rejection, and about how these new cells engraft in the eye," Schwartz says.

And that's a big deal, says Anthony Atala, MD, director of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest University.

"This is an exciting first step, albeit preliminary," Atala tells WebMD. "This is the first published report of patients treated with human embryonic stem cells with a follow-up that shows both safety and efficacy."

Today on WebMD

What Is Macular Degeneration
human eye
What Someone With Macular Degeneration Sees
picture of the eyes
Image Collection

eye exam
Treatments For Macular Degeneration
the aging eye
senior woman wearing glasses

WebMD Special Sections