Embryonic stem cells: Looking up

FOURTEEN years ago James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin isolated cells from human embryos. It was an exciting moment. The ability of such cells to morph into any other sort of suggested that worn-out or damaged tissues might be repaired, and diseases thus treated—a technique that has come to be known as regenerative medicine. Since then progress has been erratic and (because of the cells’ origins) controversial. But, as two new papers prove, progress there has indeed been.This week’s Lancet published results from a clinical trial that used stem cells in people. It follows much disappointment. In November, for example, a company in California cancelled what had been the first trial of human stem cells, in those with spinal injuries. Steven Schwartz of the University of California, Los Angeles, however, claims some success in treating a different problem: blindness. His research, sponsored by Advanced Cell Technology, a company based in Massachusetts, involved two patients. One has age-related macular degeneration, the main cause of blindness in rich countries. The other suffers from Stargardt’s macular dystrophy, its main cause in children. Dr Schwartz and his team coaxed stem cells to become retinal pigment epithelium—tissue which supports the rod and cone cells that actually respond to light—then…

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