Macular degeneration, a major cause of blindness on the rise in developed nations, occurs when retinal cells die in the central area of the retinal field, leaving sufferers with a black hole in the center of their vision.
There is no cure—but soon there may be.
At Nottingham Trent University, for the first time, scientists have learned to regrow the cells in a way that enables them to survive indefinitely, at least in a lab test.
They began by fabricating a scaffold of polymer nanofibers. One kind of polymer gives structural strength; a second attracts water, which enables the polymer to serve as a membrane.
By squirting the molten polymer through a high-power electrical field, the fibers were made thin enough to work inside the eye. The scientists then squirted the membrane with a steroid to prevent inflammation.
Finally, they implanted retinal cells in the membrane, where the cells survived for 150 days to the end of the test period.
TRENDPOST: Other research is underway that attempts to plug lab-grown cells directly into retinal tissue, where they can replace the dead ones. Another project is working with cells in animals that regrow retinal cells. The same cells are present in the human eye and researchers are trying to figure out how to activate them.
About 10 percent of Americans over age 50 have early-stage macular degeneration. That proportion will continue driving funds into the research until at least one effective treatment is proven, which still will take years of development.