Humans are a vision-oriented species. Yes, we possess five full senses, but our eyes are the most important of our sensory organs. In fact, a major percentage of our brains is allocated to processing information from our eyes. Macular degeneration is the name given to the usually slow loss of vision that affects us as we age. According to the American Optometric Association,
“Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the leading cause of severe vision loss in adults over age 50. The CDC estimates that 1.8 million people have AMD and another 7.3 million are at a substantial risk for vision loss from AMD.”
What Is Macular Degeneration?
Macular degeneration is a progressive health condition in which the patient’s vision becomes more and more blurry or distorted over time. If left unchecked, AMD can result in significant loss of sight, or even blindness in many patients. This will in turn affect the individual’s ability to engage in everyday activities such as driving a car, reading a book or magazine, or even handling basic chores, such as washing dishes or vacuuming the house.
What Causes Macular Degeneration?
Macular degeneration is caused by a thinning of the macula, which is the part of the retina “responsible for clear vision in your direct line of sight”, according to the Mayo Clinic. However, there are two underlying causes here, and each leads to a different type of macular degeneration.
Dry and Wet Macular Degeneration
Dry macular degeneration is generally caused by yellowish deposits of drusen building up on the macula. This issue generally affects the vision of people while they read and is the most common type of AMD. Wet macular degeneration, on the other hand, is caused by the development of abnormal blood vessels under the macular tissue, which leak fluid into the retina. The abnormal tissue growth and fluid leakage lead to the development of scar tissue, and permanent loss of vision.
While both types of macular degeneration occur as we age, the underlying cause of the condition is not well known. It is suspected that there is a hereditary component, but there are other factors as well, including lifestyle choices like smoking, as well as health factors, such as obesity and hypertension, that can make a person more likely to develop AMD. In addition, macular degeneration is more common in Caucasian females with light-colored eyes than in any other demographic.
What Are the Symptoms of Macular Degeneration?
In many cases, there are no discernible symptoms of macular degeneration in the early stages, which can last for many years. Generally, patients do not notice anything out of the ordinary until the condition affects both eyes and has worsened. Then, symptoms generally include blurred vision in one or both eyes, with a blurry spot in the center of the person’s range of vision. Changed perceptions of color, or a diminishing in the ability to perceive color can also be signs of macular degeneration.
Understanding the Myriad of Conventional Treatment Options for Macular Degeneration
While there is no cure for either dry or wet macular degeneration, there are many different treatment options available that can help to reduce the chance of the condition worsening, or even reversing the condition to some extent. These include:
Weight Loss: Obesity is one of the leading health factors that can lead to macular degeneration, and waste land can help to reduce the symptoms a person experiences, although it cannot restore lost vision.
Lifestyle Changes: Poor lifestyle choices can lead to and exacerbate macular degeneration. As such, making smart lifestyle choice, such as stopping smoking, getting more exercise, eating more nutritious foods, and others can help to mitigate the situation.
Vitamin Supplementation: Macular degeneration has been linked to poor nutrition and an inadequate intake of eye-friendly nutrients, such as vitamins E, C and zinc. Eating healthful foods and taking nutritional supplements can help to reduce symptoms and slow progress of the disease.
Laser Treatment: There are two types of laser-based therapy that have been shown to provide help for those suffering from wet macular degeneration – conventional laser therapy and photodynamic laser therapy.
Anti-Angiogenesis Drugs: Anti-angiogenesis drugs stop the formation of new blood vessels within macular tissues, and can slow or even halt the progression of wet macular degeneration.
Stem Cell Therapy and Macular Degeneration
Stem cells are currently being explored as a potential treatment option for helping those suffering from both dry and wet macular degeneration.
How Does Stem Cell Therapy Help AMD Sufferers?
Stem cell therapy for macular degeneration is being explored in several different ways. One is the use of embryonic stem cells, such as the method reported by the American Macular Degeneration Foundation. Another is the use of autologous stem cells (the patient’s own stem cells, usually harvested from fat tissue), such as the one reported on by CNN in mid-2016.
Another study, reported in the journal Science Translational Medicine, saw four out of five patients treated experience a halt to macular degeneration, and one patient actually saw their condition reverse.
Both methods showed some promise, but were compromised by several factors. One was the use of embryonic stem cells, which is controversial. The other was the fact that a patient’s own stem cells are usually not the best option for transplantation, as they are usually low energy, and carry the mutations and damage caused by a lifetime of use.
Allogeneic stem cells are a better option for transplantation into patients suffering from macular degeneration. Unlike autologous stem cells, allogeneic stem cells are not sourced from the patient in question. Unlike embryonic stem cells, they are not sourced from human embryos. Rather, they are sourced from donated and banked umbilical cord and cord blood.
This offers several important advantages, including the fact that these cells are young and high energy, that they carry no mutations or damage, and that they have a lifetime of self-renewal available to help heal the damage to a patient’s macular tissue.
In the end, there are many options for treating macular degeneration, but only stem cell therapy shows the potential to halt and possibly reverse the damage done by the disease. However, no stem cell therapy options are currently FDA approved, and all such treatments should be considered experimental in nature. It is also essential that should an individual choose to undergo an experimental stem cell treatment, the therapy be provided by a medical practitioner with significant familiarity with allogeneic stem cells in the field of eye diseases. Inappropriate treatment may worsen the condition and cause blindness.