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Steven D. Schwartz, Gavin Tan, Hamid Hosseini, Aaron Nagiel; Subretinal Transplantation of Embryonic Stem Cell–Derived Retinal Pigment Epithelium for the Treatment of Macular Degeneration: An Assessment at 4 Years. Invest. Ophthalmol. Vis. Sci. 2016;57(5):ORSFc1-ORSFc9. doi: 10.1167/iovs.15-18681.
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Advanced macular degeneration is an important cause of vision loss in the United States with over 2 million people affected by the disease. Despite substantial progress in the development of new therapies for wet AMD, the severe visual impairment associated with geographic atrophy in dry AMD or Stargardt disease remains untreatable. Recently, two phase I/II studies involving 18 patients with these diseases have demonstrated that it is possible to safely implant human embryonic stem cell–derived RPE (hESC-RPE) in an attempt to rescue photoreceptors and visual function. The anatomical and functional results are encouraging, with more than half of treated patients experiencing sustained improvements in visual acuity and demonstrating evidence of possible cellular engraftment. However, any conclusions remain tempered by the relatively short follow-up time, lack of a formal control group, poor initial visual acuity, and small number of patients. Aside from an instance of postoperative infectious endophthalmitis, no adverse events related to the cell therapy, such as hyperproliferation, tumorigenicity, or rejection-related inflammation were noted in this initial cohort of 18 patients. These first-in-human safety studies have opened the door to future studies enrolling patients with less advanced disease, treating other diseases that result in RPE loss, employing shorter immunosuppressive regimens, and using alternative strategies for RPE transplantation such as sheets of cells with or without scaffolding to mimic Bruch's membrane. The ultimate goal of these initial safety studies is to promote continued translation of complex biological therapies into meaningful treatment strategies that may address unmet medical needs.
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