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Human embryonic stem cells (hESC), based on a preliminary report, may have been used successfully to treat retinal disease in two patients. Reporting in The Lancet, researchers from Advanced Cell Technology announced on January 23 that retinal cells were stimulated to grow from hESC and then injected into two legally blind adult patients with two kinds of macular disease. The patients have had some measurable improvement in visual acuity. After four months, the retinal cells appear to have attached and survived. So far, none of the many tumor-related complications associated with hESC have been manifested, but stem cell experts point out a much longer period of observation is needed. The researchers are hopeful the use of hESC in eye disease will avoid the tumors because the immune system is minimally active within the eye. Boston stem cell transplantation expert George Daley comments, “This is a milestone that will offer tremendous encouragement to the field, and promises hope for many families, but these are still very early days of an uncontrolled and unblinded trial, and we have much more to learn about the safety and effectiveness of this new treatment before we can claim success.” Even if the treatment is deemed a success, we must point out that the harvesting of human embryonic stem cells destroys human life. Many clinical successes have been achieved using adult stem cells without the problems of rejection and tumor development. And in another report this week, Shinya Yamanaka announced his clinical trials using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) should begin within a year. Trials will also likely begin with the eye. Yamanaka points to the highly versatile nature of iPSC and the lack of ethical problems with their use.
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