Stories of Hope: Macular Degeneration

Anna Kuehl was in her mid-30’s when she was diagnosed with an early form of macular degeneration (AMD), a condition that results in the loss of central vision and is the leading cause of vision loss in the US.

Over the next few years her eyesight deteriorated to the point where she wasn’t able to hike on her favorite nature trails. “I couldn’t read the trail names on the posts anymore,” said Kuehl. “I always had to take so many things with me — my magnifying glass, my reading glasses — and I always printed out a big map.”

Then she heard about a new first-in-human clinical trial taking place at the University of Southern California (USC) with a team led by Dr. Mark Humayun. The team had created, with CIRM funding, an ultrathin synthetic scaffold, no thicker than two human hairs, that was seeded with retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) cells, the kind damaged by AMD.

In a delicate procedure the scaffold and cells are placed on the back of the eye, over the area where RPE cells were dead or dying. The hope was the transplanted cells could be held in place and help restore some vision, or at least prevent it from getting worse.

Five patients were enrolled in the trial, one patient had to drop out for unrelated reasons, two experienced improvements in vision, one patient’s vision improved enough that they were able to read 17 more letters on an eye chart than before the implant. None experienced any side effects from the surgery.

As for Anna Kuehl, she says her vision has improved considerably; “I could only see half of people’s faces before on TV and couldn’t tell the characters apart. But now that I can see better, I can follow the story.”

“I got my independence back, and I’m just so happy about it,” Kuehl said. “Now I don’t use a map on the trails, and I can read the trail names on the posts. I don’t need anything! I’m much more liberated.”