UK surgeons have carried out the first pioneering stem cell therapy designed to treat wet age-related macular degeneration, a leading cure of blindness in the elderly.

The procedure marked the start of a ground-breaking trial investigating the safety and efficacy of transplanting eye cells derived from stem cells to treat people with sudden severe visual loss from wet AMD. 

The cells are used to replace those at the back of the eye affected by the disease, through a specially engineered patch inserted behind the retina.

The operation, carried out by surgeons at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London, was deemed a success, though the outcome, in terms of initial visual recovery, won’t be known until December. Nevertheless, the researchers are convinced that it has huge potential.

The therapy was developed by the London Project to Cure Blindness - a partnership between Moorfields, the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology, and the National Institute for Health Research and Pfizer.

Macular degeneration accounts for almost 50% of all visual impairment in the developed world, and affects around 25% of over 60s in the UK. Recent research, published in the British Journal of Ophthalmology, suggests that as many as 40,000 people a year develop wet AMD. 

Aside from the impact on patients, the condition is placing a massive drain on resources, with the cost of treating wet AMD already accounting for more than 1% of the entire NHS drugs budget, and many hospitals are operating extra clinics to cope with demand, according to the Macular Society, highlighting the huge level of unmet need.