The government has signed off on the world’s first clinical trials to use induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells harvested from the bodies of human patients.
Health minister Norihisa Tamura on Friday gave his seal of approval to a proposal by two research institutes that will allow them to begin tests aimed at treating age-related macular degeneration, a common medical condition that causes blindness in older people, using iPS cells.
The pioneering field of stem-cell research may one day offer cures for conditions that are presently untreatable, and scientists hope these macular degeneration clinical trials could offer hope to millions of people robbed of their sight.
A government committee last month approved proposals for the tests, which will be jointly conducted by the Riken Center for Developmental Biology and the Foundation for Biomedical Research and Innovation, both in Kobe.
Riken will harvest stem cells using skin cells taken from patients, a spokesman said.
The trial treatment will attempt to create retinal cells that can be transplanted into six patients, replacing the damaged part of the eye.
The transplants may be conducted as early as the middle of next year at the foundation’s hospital, he said.
Age-related macular degeneration, a condition that is incurable at present, affects mostly middle-aged and older people and can lead to blindness. Approximately 700,000 people in Japan alone have the condition.
Stem cells are infant cells that can develop into any part of the body. Until the groundbreaking discovery of iPS cells by Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University in 2006, the only way to obtain stem cells was to harvest them from human embryos.
This is controversial because it requires the destruction of the embryo, a process that religious conservatives, among others, oppose.
Like embryonic stem cells, iPS cells are also capable of developing into any cell in the body, but, crucially, their source material is readily available.
Yamanaka was jointly awarded the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine last year for his successful generation of stem cells from adult skin tissue in 2006.