In this section we aim to answer some of your most frequently asked questions.
Q: What is the London Project to Cure Blindness?
A: The London Project to Cure Blindness is a 5 year research project with the aim of developing a surgical cell therapy for Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD), which will prevent blindness, restore sight and improve sufferers’ quality of life by 2012.
Q: How is it funded and who is involved?
A: Scientists from UCL's Institute of Ophthalmology, Moorfields Eye Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, and the University of Sheffield are involved the research.
The project came into existence in June 2007 following a major philanthropic donation. The Macular Disease Society then made The London Project the focus of their annual appeal which resulted in a donation of £100k at an extremely critical stage. Mid-2008, the US-based Lincy Foundation also went on to make a substantial donation. Most recently, an agreement was announced with the number one pharmaceutical company, Pfizer.
We are also delighted to have received hundreds of extremely generous donations from members of the public who have either read about the project, are sufferers themselves or have a member of the family who is affected by this disease.
Q: What is AMD?
A: AMD is a progressive eye condition that occurs in the aged population and is the fastest growing form of macular degeneration. The disease attacks the macula region of the retina at the back of the eye, where our sharpest central vision occurs. Although it rarely results in complete blindness, it deprives the individual of all but the outermost, peripheral vision, leaving only dim images or black holes at the center of vision. Experience the effect of AMD on vision here…
There are two types of AMD, -"wet" or neovascular and "dry" or atrophic. There is no cure for AMD. While progress has been made in tackling wet AMD, which is characterised by leaking blood vessels, no treatment is currently available for dry AMD.
Dry AMD is the most common form and occurs in 9 of every 10 cases. In this form, the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) cells of the macula gradually become thin and degenerate. This layer of cells is crucial for the function of the photoreceptors, the rods and cones, which then also degenerate and die. Typically, dry AMD progresses gradually as the number of cells affected increases. It usually takes several years for vision to become seriously affected.
Around 25% of people over the age of 60 in the UK have some degree of vision loss caused by AMD. In Europe as a whole, an estimated 14 million people suffer blindness because of the condition.
Q: What does the project hope to achieve?
A: Our approach is to replace the cells at the back of the eye that are affected in AMD, the retinal pigment epithelium cells (RPE), using human embryonic stem cells (hES) that have been transformed into RPE cells. These RPE cells will then be transplanted into the patient on a specially engineered patch that will be inserted behind the retina.
Another important arm of the project is to develop the technology by which hES cells can be transformed into photoreceptors (primarily cones and rods) and transplanted into patients. It is believed that the photoreceptors are lost after the RPE have degenerated. The clinical application of this component of the project is for cases where the disease has been present for a number of years.
Q: What are human embryonic stem cells?
A: Human embryonic stem cells are stem cells derived from the inner cell mass of an early stage embryo known as a blastocyst. Human embryos reach the blastocyst stage 4–5 days post fertilization, at which time they consist of 50–150 cells. Embryonic stem cells are immature, dormant cells with the ability to turn into different cell types.
Q: Could the therapy be applied to other forms of retinal disease or injury?
A: It is highly likely that the cell therapy may also help sufferers of other kinds of retinal disease and degeneration, and possibly retinal injury. However, this aspect of the project in currently in it’s infancy as opposed to the main clinical target which is AMD.
Q: Would the therapy be applicable to sufferers of Retinitis Pigmentosa?
A: Another aspect of the London Project is to try and regenerate photoreceptors lost by disease, the main problem in Retinitis Pigmentosa. However, this aspect of the project is currently in its infancy. Whilst we have already been successful in transforming human embryonic stem cells (hES) into RPE cells, the production of photoreceptors is still some way behind.
Q: Is the therapy available now?
A: No, the therapy is not available now. We hope that clinical trials will commence in 2010-2011, although this will be dependent on the regulatory pathway considering that this will be the first human embryonic stem cell trial in man in the UK. There are a number of safety and regulatory requirements that we need to fulfil before we can go to trials, to which we are wholly committed. We now have the UK & EU regulatory bodies on board and are working closely with them towards this goal.
Q: Can I be added to a waiting list?
A: Please note that we ARE NOT recruiting patients to this trial and there is NO LIST on which patients can record their interest.
Please refer back to the website for more information which will be updated periodically.