Of all the infirmities of old age, failing sight is among the cruelest. It can mean the end not only of independence, but of a whole spectrum of joys—from gazing at a sunset or a grandchild's face to reading a novel or watching TV.
The Phase 1 trial will likely run through 2022, followed by a larger Phase 2 trial that could last another two or three years.
The leading cause of vision loss in people over 55 is age-related macular degeneration, or AMD, which afflicts an estimated 11 million Americans. As photoreceptors in the macula (the central part of the retina) die off, patients experience increasingly severe blurring, dimming, distortions, and blank spots in one or both eyes.
The disorder comes in two varieties, "wet" and "dry," both driven by a complex interaction of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors. It begins when deposits of cellular debris accumulate beneath the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE)—a layer of cells that nourish and remove waste products from the photoreceptors above them. In wet AMD, this process triggers the growth of abnormal, leaky blood vessels that damage the photoreceptors. In dry AMD, which accounts for 80 to 90 percent of cases, RPE cells atrophy, causing photoreceptors to wither away. Wet AMD can be controlled in about a quarter of patients, usually by injections of medication into the eye. For dry AMD, no effective remedy exists.
Stem Cells: Promise and Perils
Over the past decade, stem cell therapy has been widely touted as a potential treatment for AMD. The idea is to augment a patient's ailing RPE cells with healthy ones grown in the lab. A few small clinical trials have shown promising results. In a study published in 2018, for example, a University of Southern California team cultivated RPE tissue from embryonic stem cells on a plastic matrix and transplanted it into the retinas of four patients with advanced dry AMD. Because the trial was designed to test safety rather than efficacy, lead researcher Amir Kashani told a reporter, "we didn't expect that replacing RPE cells would return a significant amount of vision." Yet acuity improved substantially in one recipient, and the others regained their lost ability to focus on an object.
Therapies based on embryonic stem cells, however, have two serious drawbacks: Using fetal cell lines raises ethical issues, and such treatments require the patient to take immunosuppressant drugs (which can cause health problems of their own) to prevent rejection. That's why some experts favor a different approach—one based on induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). Such cells, first produced in 2006, are made by returning adult cells to an undifferentiated state, and then using chemicals to reprogram them as desired. Treatments grown from a patient's own tissues could sidestep both hurdles associated with embryonic cells.
At least hypothetically. Today, the only stem cell therapies approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are umbilical cord-derived products for various blood and immune disorders. Although scientists are probing the use of embryonic stem cells or iPSCs for conditions ranging from diabetes to Parkinson's disease, such applications remain experimental—or fraudulent, as a growing number of patients treated at unlicensed "stem cell clinics" have painfully learned. (Some have gone blind after receiving bogus AMD therapies at those facilities.)
Last December, researchers at the National Eye Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, began enrolling patients with dry AMD in the country's first clinical trial using tissue grown from the patients' own stem cells. Led by biologist Kapil Bharti, the team intends to implant custom-made RPE cells in 12 recipients. If the effort pans out, it could someday save the sight of countless oldsters.
That, however, is what's technically referred to as a very big "if."
The First Steps
Bharti's trial is not the first in the world to use patient-derived iPSCs to treat age-related macular degeneration. In 2013, Japanese researchers implanted such cells into the eyes of a 77-year-old woman with wet AMD; after a year, her vision had stabilized, and she no longer needed injections to keep abnormal blood vessels from forming. A second patient was scheduled for surgery—but the procedure was canceled after the lab-grown RPE cells showed signs of worrisome mutations. That incident illustrates one potential problem with using stem cells: Under some circumstances, the cells or the tissue they form could turn cancerous.
"The knowledge and expertise we're gaining can be applied to many other iPSC-based therapies."
Bharti and his colleagues have gone to great lengths to avoid such outcomes. "Our process is significantly different," he told me in a phone interview. His team begins with patients' blood stem cells, which appear to be more genomically stable than the skin cells that the Japanese group used. After converting the blood cells to RPE stem cells, his team cultures them in a single layer on a biodegradable scaffold, which helps them grow in an orderly manner. "We think this material gives us a big advantage," Bharti says. The team uses a machine-learning algorithm to identify optimal cell structure and ensure quality control.
It takes about six months for a patch of iPSCs to become viable RPE cells. When they're ready, a surgeon uses a specially-designed tool to insert the tiny structure into the retina. Within days, the scaffold melts away, enabling the transplanted RPE cells to integrate fully into their new environment. Bharti's team initially tested their method on rats and pigs with eye damage mimicking AMD. The study, published in January 2019 in Science Translational Medicine, found that at ten weeks, the implanted RPE cells continued to function normally and protected neighboring photoreceptors from further deterioration. No trace of mutagenesis appeared.
Encouraged by these results, Bharti began recruiting human subjects. The Phase 1 trial will likely run through 2022, followed by a larger Phase 2 trial that could last another two or three years. FDA approval would require an even larger Phase 3 trial, with a decision expected sometime between 2025 and 2028—that is, if nothing untoward happens before then. One unknown (among many) is whether implanted cells can thrive indefinitely under the biochemically hostile conditions of an eye with AMD.
"Most people don't have a sense of just how long it takes to get something like this to work, and how many failures—even disasters—there are along the way," says Marco Zarbin, professor and chair of Ophthalmology and visual science at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and co-editor of the book Cell-Based Therapy for Degenerative Retinal Diseases. "The first kidney transplant was done in 1933. But the first successful kidney transplant was in 1954. That gives you a sense of the time frame. We're really taking the very first steps in this direction."
Even if Bharti's method proves safe and effective, there's the question of its practicality. "My sense is that using induced pluripotent stem cells to treat the patient from whom they're derived is a very expensive undertaking," Zarbin observes. "So you'd have to have a very dramatic clinical benefit to justify that cost."
Bharti concedes that the price of iPSC therapy is likely to be high, given that each "dose" is formulated for a single individual, requires months to manufacture, and must be administered via microsurgery. Still, he expects economies of scale and production to emerge with time. "We're working on automating several steps of the process," he explains. "When that kicks in, a technician will be able to make products for 10 or 20 people at once, so the cost will drop proportionately."
Meanwhile, other researchers are pressing ahead with therapies for AMD using embryonic stem cells, which could be mass-produced to treat any patient who needs them. But should that approach eventually win FDA approval, Bharti believes there will still be room for a technique that requires neither fetal cell lines nor immunosuppression.
And not only for eye ailments. "The knowledge and expertise we're gaining can be applied to many other iPSC-based therapies," says the scientist, who is currently consulting with several companies that are developing such treatments. "I'm hopeful that we can leverage these approaches for a wide range of applications, whether it's for vision or across the body."
NEI launches iPS cell therapy trial for dry AMD
The beauty market abounds with high-end creams and serums that claim the use of stem cells to rejuvenate aging skin.
Selling on the internet and at department stores like Nordstrom, these products promise "breakthrough" applications to plump, smooth, and "reverse visible signs of aging," and at least one product offers to create a "regenerative firming serum, moisturizer, and eye cream" from customers' own stem cells – for a whopping $1200.
The beauty industry is heavily hyping glimmers of the nascent field of stem cell therapy.
Steeped in clinical-sounding terms like "proteins and peptides from pluripotent stem cells," the marketing of these products evokes a dramatic restoration of youthfulness based on cutting-edge science. But the beauty industry is heavily hyping glimmers of the nascent field of stem cell therapy. So what is real and what's not? And is there in fact a way to harness the potential of stem cells in the service of beauty?
Plant vs. Human Stem Cells
Stem cells do indeed have tremendous promise for treating a wide range of diseases and conditions. The cells come from early-stage embryos or, more commonly, from umbilical cord blood or our own bodies. Embryonic stem cells are considered the body's "master" cells because they can develop into any of our several hundred cell types. Adult stem cells, on the other hand, reside in mature tissues and organs like the brain, bone marrow, and skin, and their versatility is more limited. As an internal repair system for many tissue types, they replenish sick, injured, and worn-out cells.
Nowadays, with some sophisticated chemical coaxing, adult stem cells can be returned to an embryonic-like blank state, with the ability to become any cell type that the body might need.
Beauty product manufacturers convey in their advertising that the rejuvenating power of these cells could hold the key to the fountain of youth. But there's something the manufacturers don't always tell you: their products do not typically use human stem cells.
"The whole concept of stem cells is intriguing to the public," says Tamara Griffiths, a consultant dermatologist for the British Skin Foundation. "But what these products contain is plant stem cells and, more commonly, chemicals that have been derived from plant stem cells."
The plant stem cells are cultured in the lab with special media to get them to produce signaling proteins and peptides, like cytokines and chemokines. These have been shown to be good for reducing inflammation and promoting healthy cell functioning, even if derived from plants. However, according to Griffiths, there are so many active ingredients in these products that it's hard to say just what role each one of them plays. We do know that their ability to replenish human stem cells is extremely limited, and the effects of plant stem cells on human cells are unproven.
"...any cosmetic that is advertised to be anti-aging due to plant stem cells at this time is about as effective as all the skin creams without stem cells."
Whether products containing plant cell-derived ingredients work better than conventional skin products is unknown because these products are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and may rest on dubious, even more or less nonexistent, research. Cosmetics companies have conducted most of the research and the exact formulas they devise are considered proprietary information. They have no incentive to publish their research findings, and they don't have to meet standards imposed by the FDA unless they start using human cells in their products.
"There are biological limits to what you can do with plant cells in the first place," says Griffiths. "No plant stem cell is going to morph into a human skin cell no matter what magic medium you immerse it in. Nor is a plant cell likely to stimulate the production of human stem cells if applied to the skin."
According to Sarah Baucus, a cell biologist, for any type of stem cell to be of any use whatsoever, the cells must be alive. The processing needed to incorporate living cells into any type of cream or serum would inevitably kill them, rendering them useless. The splashy marketing of these products suggests that results may be drastic, but none of these creams is likely to produce the kind of rejuvenating effect that would be on par with a facelift or several other surgical or dermatological procedures.
"Plant stem cell therapy needs to move in the right direction to implement its inherent potential in skin care," researchers wrote in a 2017 paper in the journal Future Science OA. "This might happen in the next 20 years but any cosmetic that is advertised to be anti-aging due to plant stem cells at this time is about as effective as all the skin creams without stem cells."
From Beauty Counter to Doctor's Clinic
Where do you turn if you still want to harness the power of stem cells to reinvigorate the skin? Is there a legitimate treatment using human cells? The answer is possibly, but for that you have to switch from the Nordstrom cosmetics counter to a clinic with a lab, where plastic surgeons work with specialists who culture and manipulate living cells.
Plastic surgeons are experts in wound healing, a process in which stem cells play a prominent role. Doctors have long used the technique of taking fat from the body and injecting it into hollowed-out or depressed areas of the face to fill in injuries, correct wrinkles, and improve the face's curvature. Lipotransfer, or the harvesting of body fat and injecting it into the face, has been around for many years in traditional plastic surgery clinics. In recent years, some plastic surgeons have started to cull stem cells from fat. One procedure that does just that is called cell-assisted lipotransfer, or CAL.
In CAL, adipose tissue, or fat, is harvested by liposuction, usually from the lower abdomen. Fat contains stem cells that can differentiate into several cell types, including skin, muscle, cartilage, and bone. Fat tissue has an especially stem cell-rich layer. These cells are then mixed with some regular fat, making in effect a very stem cell-rich fat solution, right in the doctor's office. The process of manipulating the fat cells takes about 90 to 110 minutes, and then the solution is ready to be injected into the skin, to fill in the lips, the cheeks, and the nasolabial folds, or the deep folds around the nose and mouth.
Unlike regular fat, which is often injected into the face, some experts claim that the cell-enriched fat has better, longer-lasting results. The tissue graft grows its own blood vessels, an advantage that may lead to a more long-lasting graft – though the research is mixed, with some studies showing they do and other studies showing the complete opposite.
For almost all stem cell products on the market today in the U.S., it is not yet known whether they are safe or effective, despite how they are marketed.
One of the pioneers in CAL, a plastic surgeon in Brazil named Dr. Aris Sterodimas, says that the stem cells secrete growth factors that rejuvenate the skin -- like the plant stem cells that are used in topical creams and serums. Except that these cells are human stem cells and hence have inherently more potential in the human body.
Note that CAL doesn't actually result in large numbers of fresh, new replacement cells, as might be imagined. It's simply fat tissue treated to make it richer in stem cells, to have more of the growth-inducing proteins and peptides delivered to the dermis layer of the skin.
Sterodimas works alongside a tissue engineer to provide CAL in his clinic. He uses it as a way to rebuild soft tissues in people disfigured by accidents or diseases, or who are suffering the after-effects of radiation treatments for cancer.
Plastic surgeons get plenty of these patients. But how widespread is CAL for beauty purposes? Sterodimas says that he regularly performs the procedure for Brazilians, and it's widely available in Europe and Japan. In the U.S., the procedure hasn't taken off because there is no FDA approval for the various methods used by different doctors and clinics. A few major academic centers in the U.S. offer the treatment on a clinical trials basis and there are several trials ongoing.
But there is a downside to all lipotransfers: the transplanted fat will eventually be absorbed by the body. Even the cell-enriched fat has a limited lifespan before reabsorption. That means if you like the cosmetic results of CAL, you'll have to repeat the treatment about every two years to maintain the plumping, firming, and smoothing effects on the skin. The results of CAL are "superior to the results of laser treatments and other plastic surgery interventions, though the effect is not as dramatic as a facelift," says Sterodimas.
For almost all stem cell products on the market today in the U.S., it is not yet known whether they are safe or effective, despite how they are marketed. There are around 700 clinics in the U.S. offering stem cell treatments and up to 20,000 people have received these therapies. However, the only FDA-approved stem cell treatments use cells from bone marrow or cord blood to treat cancers of the blood and bone marrow. Safety concerns have prompted the FDA to announce increased oversight of stem cell clinics.
As for CAL, most of the clinical trials so far have been focused on using it for breast reconstruction after mastectomy, and results are mixed. Experts warn that the procedure has yet to be proven safe as well as effective. It's important to remember that this newborn science is in the early stages of research.
One question that has also not been definitively settled is whether the transplanted stem cells may give rise to tumors — a risk that is ever-present any time stem cells are used. More research is required to assess the long-term safety and effectiveness of these treatments.
Given the lack of uniform industry standards, one can easily end up at a clinic that overpromises what it can deliver.
In the journal Plastic Reconstruction Surgery in 2014, Adrian McArdle and a team of Stanford University plastic surgeons examined the common claims of CAL's "stem cell facelifts" being offered by clinics across the world. McArdle and his team write: "…the marketplace is characterized by direct-to-consumer corporate medicine strategies that are characterized by unsubstantiated, and sometimes fraudulent claims, that put our patients at risk." Given the lack of uniform industry standards, one can easily end up at a clinic that overpromises what it can deliver.
But according to McArdle, further research on CAL, including clinical trials, is proceeding apace. It's possible that as more research on the potential of stem cells accrues, many of the technical hurdles will be crossed.
If you decide to try CAL in a research or clinical setting, be forewarned. You will be taking part in a young science, with many unknown questions. However, the next time someone offers to sell you stem cells in a jar, you'll know what you're paying for.