Doctors at the Moorfields Eye in London carried out an experimental stem cell treatment on a female patient with age-related macular degeneration (AMD). The operation could pave way for blindness cure and save the eyesight of thousands of individuals.

Macular degeneration causes nearly half of all cases of vision loss or blindness in the developed world and often affects individuals above 50 years old. The condition comes in two forms: wet and dry.

Wet AMD, which is less prevalent compared with dry AMD, is often caused by blood vessels that leak blood or fluid into the region of the macula near the center of the eye's retina.

Dry AMD affects 90 percent of people with macular degeneration. It is characterized by a breakdown or thinning in the macula's layer of retinal pigment epithelial cells (RPE), which supports photoreceptor cells that are crucial to vision.

The 60 year old patient, who underwent the procedure last month, suffers from wet AMD but scientists believe that the same procedure can also be applied to dry AMD. The patient was the first of 10 to receive the treatment over 18 months.

"Although we recognize this clinical trial focuses on a small group of AMD patients who have experienced sudden severe visual loss, we hope that many patients may benefit in the future," said Pete Coffey, from University College London.

The treatment involves transplanting eye cells called retinal pigment epithelium that were derived from embryonic stem cells. Doctors inserted a specially engineered patch behind the eye's retina to deliver the treatment cells and replace the damaged cells at the back of the eye. The surgical procedure takes one to two hours.

Coffey said he hopes that the operation could become a routine procedure for individuals suffering from vision loss which commonly affects older people just like dementia.

 "It does involve an operation, but we're trying to make it as straightforward as a cataract operation," Coffey said. "It will probably take 45 minutes to an hour. We could treat a substantial number of those patients."

The surgery was performed successfully and the unnamed patient did not show any complications to date. It will take months though before researchers will know the outcome in terms of visual recovery.

Chris Mason, from UCL, said that the trial is a potential step towards treating a condition that commonly causes blindness. It could also improve researchers' understanding of the use of embryonic stem cells in medical treatments.

"If the AMD trials are successful, then by using embryonic stem cells as the starting material, the therapy can then be affordably manufactured at large scale," Mason said.

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