New research shows reversing sight loss could be possible

Posted: Tuesday 18 May 2021
scientific research laboratory with two male researchers

New research has shown the ability to reverse sight loss, as light-sensing cells have been successfully transplanted into the retina for the first time.

The research, conducted in mice at University College London (UCL), has proven that restoring the photoreceptor cells, which give us our vision, is possible and could lead to future research trials in humans.

In advanced macular disease our photoreceptors die, meaning sight is lost. If new photoreceptors, developed from stem cells, could be successfully transplanted into the human retina, sight loss could, for the first time, be reversed.

This project focused on the type of photoreceptors known as cones, which detect colour and are most densely clustered in the macula.

Previous research has seen photoreceptors transplanted into the back of the mouse eye, but they have had difficulty forming necessary connections (called ‘synapses’) to their neighbouring cells, called ‘inner retinal neurons’.

Without these connections, the cells aren’t ‘plugged in’ to the circuit and information cannot be sent through the optic nerve to the brain, or create the images that make up our vision.

In this latest research scientists have shown that functional connections are possible but more research is needed to optimise the integration of the new photoreceptors.

Geraldine Hoad, research manager at the Macular Society, said: “This is indeed exciting research and proves that there is a way to restore photoreceptors and therefore vision. This has never been done before. To date, many therapies have focused on stopping the disease in its tracks. But, something which can reverse sight loss would be ground breaking. As with a lot of research, it is important to note that this is very early days and there is a significant amount of work to do before this could be trialled in humans.” 

The Macular Society is currently funding a similar project at UCL with Professor Jane Sowden, which is looking at improving the integration of stem cell-derived photoreceptor transplants in the retina.

The project aims to better understanding how to encourage connection growth and pave the way for more successful stem cell transplants, which could restore the vision of people with macular disease.

To keep up to date with progress on research sign up as a member to the Macular Society on a six-month free trial.