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Future Focus: Stem Cell Treatment for Glaucoma

Stem cells are undifferentiated cells which have the potential to develop into many different types of specialized tissues.  

Stem cells are most commonly derived from tissues of healthy adults such as the skin, brain, bone marrow, and nasal mucosa.

Stem cells are being investigated as a possible treatment for glaucoma because they may have the potential to protect the optic nerve from further damage and slow the progression of vision loss due to glaucoma. Stem cells may also have the potential to replace ocular tissues that have degenerated in eyes with glaucoma. These tissues include the trabecular meshwork, which composes the drain of the eye and regulates intraocular pressure, and the optic nerve, which transmits visual information from the eye to the brain. This is an exciting possibility because at this time we have no treatments that can restore vision once it has been lost due to glaucoma.

Several important goals must be accomplished before stem cells can be used to treat glaucoma. Researchers need methods to reliably differentiate stem cells into the specific ocular tissues that are damaged in glaucoma. The stem cells must be safely implanted into the correct site within the eye and, in order to be functional, must establish working connections with specific parts of the brain. Finally, any stem cells implanted into a patient with glaucoma must remain stable for a significant period of time and not cause any serious side effects.

Although important progress is being made towards reaching these goals, stem cell therapy for glaucoma needs to be carefully studied in humans. Despite this fact, several international clinics offer stem cell treatments for a variety of degenerative conditions, including glaucoma. None of these treatments have yet proven to be effective in glaucoma and, in a few cases, have resulted in serious side effects. Patients with glaucoma should only consider receiving stem cell treatment in the context of a well-regulated clinical trial after consultation with their personal ophthalmologist.

There is a great deal of hope and enthusiasm for the role of stem cells in the future treatment of glaucoma that is firmly supported by groundbreaking, strong fundamental basic science research.

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Article by Alice L. Williams, MD, Michael Waisbourd, MD and L. Jay Katz, MD.

Alice L. Williams, MD is a resident physician at the Wills Eye Hospital residency program at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, PA.

Michael Waisbourd, MD is Research Manager at the Wills Eye Glaucoma Research Center in Philadelphia, PA.

L. Jay Katz, MD is is a Professor of Ophthalmology at Jefferson Medical College, Thomas Jefferson University, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Director of the Glaucoma Service at the Wills Eye Institute.

Dr. Katz has published more than 160 articles in such journals as Archives of Ophthalmology, the American Journal of Ophthalmology, Ophthalmology, and the Journal of Glaucoma.

Last reviewed on November 18, 2016

This article appeared in the January 2016 issue of Gleams.

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