One of the first signs of old age is that your vision starts to deteriorate. While we take this for granted as part of getting old it is actually a condition that many elderly people get. Deterioration of eyesight is not a guarantee, it is just that so many people get this condition that it is assumed it is. While scientists have been experimenting with stem cell research and are close to breakthroughs on that front, it has issues. Because of those issues, it is exciting to see that a new solution is coming to the fore.
This condition that deteriorates eyesight over time is called macular degeneration. Macular degeneration is caused by a loss of photoreceptors in the eye. The photoreceptor is very important as it is the neuron in the eye that allows the visual circuity as a result of light, creating vision. As these photoreceptors wear down and fail our eyesight begins to fail.
In the past, we have looked at creating new cells in their place using stem cells but this has proved difficult. While the stem cell theory is still a good one it is very time consuming, expensive and causes an ethical dilemma for many. This is why scientists have continued to look in other areas for a solution. A new study suggests that photoreceptors can actually be produced again by the body if we trick the fibroblasts. We can possibly program fibroblasts to cells that are almost identical to photoreceptors and can perform the same tasks.
Fibroblasts are cells that keep connective tissue strong and are present throughout the body. The test has been done on mice and it appears a success. The test was conducted on 14 blind mice (try not to have the song in your head right now). Once the fibroblasts were converted it appeared that the test was a success in at least six of the mice. The mice were put in a box where there was a bright area and a dark area. Six of the mice immediately went to the dark corner (something you would expect mice with good eyesight to do).
While further studies are required to see just how well the eyesight improved it appears likely that it can also work for humans. The approach is so much better than stem cells because it is incredibly fast and at a low cost. This technique has the potential to save eyesight for millions. The lead scientist suggests that they could have human trials within two to three years and is optimistic about the chances for success overall.
The reason this approach is so well received by the body is that it bypasses the need for DNA to replicate cells. It finds another way to get the body to recover the eyesight that is far more efficient. The potential benefits of this study are even further reaching than eyesight. If they can add further molecules to the process they could potentially create many different types of neurons. This means that any neurological disease is a possible case for further exploration.
While these tests are still in early stages there is considerable excitement in the scientific community about this brand new approach to revitalizing cells. It was previously thought that stem cell research was the only approach available yet there is now a far more affordable alternative. This is an exciting time in the medical and scientific community and it will be amazing to see how these studies have developed in three years’ time. Who knows but there is a chance that this is the first step in stopping the characteristics of aging that we have come to accept as the norm.