An Israeli company is using a new stem cell technology to save the sight of aging baby boomers by replacing diseased cells with new ones.
By I.C. Meyer
Are "granny glasses" a thing of the past? Israeli company CellCure Neurosciences has developed a new stem cell technology for the treatment of age-related eyesight deterioration, which would replace diseased cells with fresh new ones. The innovative treatment, which is unprecedented in the medical field, would not just improve deteriorating eyesight; rather those who benefit from the treatment will feel as if they have a new set of eyes.
New cells halt disease
More than eight million people in the US and many millions more worldwide, suffer from age-related macular degeneration, the main cause of visual impairment in people over 50. The dry form of this disease, which CellCure plans to treat, affects the ability to see fine details. Thus, company CEO Charles Irving explains, "Those who are unfortunate enough to have this disease cannot read, drive, or see the faces of their grandchildren."
Age-related macular degeneration begins in the retina, when retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells begin to die. RPE cells are caretakers of the photo-receptors – the cells in the retina that enable the eye to see light and dark. Currently there is no drug treatment for this disease, which typically progresses gradually over time.
In October, CellCure reached a breakthrough based on the work of Professor Rubinoff, director of the Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research Center at Hadassah University Hospital, and Dr. Eyal Banin, head of Hadassah’s Macular Degeneration Unit.
The researchers found a method of converting human embryonic stem cells into RPE cells, which can be transplanted into the patient’s eye. The transplants, performed on animal models with macular degenerative disease, showed that the new RPE cells could protect the cells in the retina from degenerating. Once the old cells were replaced, the progress of the disease halted, thereby rescuing the retina from the disease.
Cures for more diseases in the works
The mission of CellCure is to take this technology, together with clinical grade embryonic stem cells, and to create a product: Clinical grade RPE cells which can be used in clinical trials and commercialized. Teva has signed a license option agreement with CellCure to take over the clinical studies of the product development, once the company receives FDA approval to begin clinical trials.
The company is also working to combat other age-related degenerative diseases, but treatment of this particular disease is less complex than the treatment of neurological disorders, for example, and therefore more easily applied.
"The simplicity of this particular application [of stem cell technology] makes it the number one leading clinical application of human embryonic stem cells," says Irving. "For this reason, many pharmaceutical companies have become interested in it."
So far, Teva has invested $2 million in the company, Hadasit Bioholdings invested $1 million, and BioTime, a US-based company, invested $4.1 million. CellCure is located in the Jerusalem BioPark at Hadassah Ein Kerem and supports about 10 scientists.