Vic stem cell bid to beat blindness

Scientists are turning human skin cells into eye cells by using stem cell research, with their sights set on unravelling a common but incurable form of blindness.

Age-related macular degeneration, which results from dying retinal cells, affects one in seven older Australians and costs the country's economy $5.15 billion a year, figures show.

But little is understood about how or why it occurs.

Enter a team at Melbourne's Centre for Eye Research Australia (CERA), which is taking skin cells from affected patients, turning them into stem cells and then into new retinal cells.

These are then compared with the patient's damaged cells, allowing the researchers to see in detail what's gone wrong.

A new charity, the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia, has devoted its first investment to the project, bringing Kathryn Davidson, a US stem cell expert, to the centre from Seattle.

'We know (with macular degeneration) that certain cells in the retina die, and so do the other cells that depend on them, but we need to know how and why,' Dr Davidson told those gathered at the charity's launch in Melbourne on Monday.

Dr Davidson said stem cell research lets her team 'mimic the disease in a dish', with a view to finding means for better diagnosis and treatment.

Melbourne therapist and mum Michelle Kornberg, who was diagnosed with age-related macular degeneration aged 30, knows the fear and frustration at the lack of available relief.

Doorways and blinds appear as uneven waves, and written words would intermittently vanish from sight, she said.

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Vic stem cell bid to beat blindness

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