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Stem Cells Show Potential to Treat Leading Cause of Blindness - NBC29 WVIR Charlottesville, VA News, Sports and Weather

Stem Cells Show Potential to Treat Leading Cause of Blindness

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Can belly fat prevent blindness? New research says for diabetics it might.

Right now there is no cure for degenerative eye disease in people who have diabetes but researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine may be on the brink of changing that result. They are using stem cells from belly fat of the same person with the eye disease to prevent and reverse blindness.

The leading cause of blindness in the United States today is retinopathy, a degenerative eye disease resulting from diabetes.

"The functional effect on these people's lives is dramatic. They lose their vision and they lose their job so the effects it can have on both them and their families are dramatic," Dr. Paul Yates, an assistant professor of ophthalmology and biomedical engineering at UVA stated.

Yates explains that 40 percent of diabetics will develop retinopathy. Treatment requires either a shot of medicine directly in the eye every month or surgery.

"Right now we don't have a lot of great treatment. We have techniques we were using back in the 1950s. One option is to take a laser and destroy most of the back of the eye in order to save some of the eye," he said.

But neither procedure prevents blindness, the eventual result, they just slow the process down. Now, there is new promise.

In a paper published Friday, Yates along with other researchers at UVA show that taking stem cells from belly fat and injecting them into the same person's eye may prevent the blood vessels from decay.

Tom Mendal is a M.D. / Ph.D. student at UVA who is involved in the research and publication.  "One way that this could happen is that down the line, after lots of trials, we might be able to take your own adult stem cells and take them out and grow them in the lab and introduce them into your eye and potentially treat and even prevent the disease from occurring in the first place. Because we know that you get diabetes before the disease starts to happen," he stated.

Yates and Mendal say that if favorable results continue on mice and then in clinical trials, this discovery may be available to the public within the next 10 years.

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