Scientists in Belfast could soon be able to save the sight of millions of diabetes sufferers by utilising the human body's ability to heal itself, it has been claimed.
Researchers at Queen's University are working on a new therapy that will regenerate damaged retinas and restore vision.
The process involves taking stem cells from a patient's bone marrow, expanding the number of cells in a laboratory and then transplanting them back into areas of the body that have been damaged by diabetes.
Professor Alan Stitt, director of the Centre for Vision and Vascular Science at Queen's University, said: "The impact could be profound for patients, because regeneration of damaged retina could prevent progression of diabetic retinopathy and reduce the risk of vision loss."
Millions of diabetics worldwide are at risk of going blind because of a condition called diabetic retinopathy. This is when high blood sugar causes the blood vessels in the eye to become blocked or to leak. Failed blood flow harms the retina and leads to vision impairment. If left untreated it can cause blindness. Similar stem cell therapy techniques have been used to treat cardiac disease.
Professor Stitt said it offered fresh hope for those with diabetes. He added: "Currently available treatments for diabetic retinopathy are not always satisfactory. They focus on end-stages of the disease, carry many side effects and fail to address the root causes of the condition.
"A novel, alternative therapeutic approach is to harness adult stem cells to promote regeneration of the damaged retinal blood vessels and thereby prevent and/or reverse retinopathy. The approach is quite simple. We plan to isolate a very defined population of stem cells and then deliver them to sites in the body that have been damaged by diabetes.
"In the case of some patients with diabetes, they may gain enormous benefit from stem cell-mediated repair of damaged blood vessels in their retina. This is the first step towards an exciting new therapy in an area where it is desperately needed."
The six million euro EU-funded research project is being carried out as part of a new REDDSTAR (Repair of Diabetic Damage by Stromal Cell Administration) study involving researchers from Queen's Centre for Vision and Vascular Science in the School of Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Sciences.
It is part of a joint three-year project between Queen's and the National University of Ireland, Galway, and brings together experts from Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Portugal and the United States.