Stem cell injection 'reverses glaucoma'
People with glaucoma could receive a simple injection in the near future to halt - or even reverse - the eye condition.
Scientists at Cambridge University believe the technique, which uses stem cells, could even cure blindness one day.
They have already had success in rats and hope to start trials in humans within five years.
The method involves taking stem cells from bone marrow and injecting them in a solution into the back of the eye.
There, they help existing optic nerve cells from degenerating further. They can also transform theselves into new optic nerve cells, reversing damage and improving eyesight.
Professor Keith Martin, a neuroscientist at Cambridge University and an eye surgeon at Addenbrooke's Hospital, said: "Finding treatments to reverse blindness is no longer in the realm of science fiction.
"We are doing it in animal models and results are so encouraging that we hope to move forward to testing on humans soon.
"Stem cell treatment is moving forward very fast in many branches of the medicine and we are seeing some of the best results in eyes."
He added: "We have concentrated on glaucoma because it is so common, but there are quite a few diseases that affect they optic nerve, such as inflammatory diseases, so it could be used here too."
While the team has had success in halting glaucoma in rats and reversing its decline to some extent, they are still working on the ultimate objective - how to cure blindness.
The condition is usually caused by raised eye pressure and damage to the optic nerve, which transmits signals from the retina to the brain. The field of vision slowly narrows over years or decades.
Prof Martin said the new technique could help two groups in particular: those diagnosed with advanced glaucoma and those who developed it early in life.
The existing treatment, lowering eye pressure, worked well for most people but as it was a preventative strategy it was useless for those with advanced glaucoma, he said. In addition, lowering eye pressure alone could not stave off glaucoma over many decades.
The project is funded by a £320,000 grant from charity Fight for Sight, which is supporting today's (SAT) World Glaucoma Day.
Dr Dolores Conroy, research officer for Fight for Sight, said: "Advances in stem cell technology are likely to revolutionise treatments for diseases like glaucoma.
"We must invest in this research field now so treatments to save, and potentially restore, the sight of millions of people are available in the future."