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Technology

Groundbreaking stem cell transplant performed in Japan

OSAKA -- A woman in Japan suffering from an incurable eye disease has received what is being called the world's first human transplant of cells reprogrammed to an embryonic state.

     Friday's two-hour surgery, which went off without a hitch, comes seven years after Kyoto University professor Shinya Yamanaka first created induced pluripotent stem cells. His pioneering work in this field earned him a Nobel Prize in medicine.

     Japan's government-backed Riken institute and the Kobe-based Foundation for Biomedical Research and Innovation collaborated on the transplant.

     Once science fiction, regenerative medicine -- using living cells to repair damaged organs or cure diseases -- is becoming a reality. Since iPS cells are made from patients' own tissue, many hope this route avoids the ethical minefield around harvesting stem cells from embryos.

     Japan is better positioned than the U.S. and Europe to commercialize iPS cell treatments, since the patents for the basic technology are held domestically. The government is backing such efforts with funding.

     The patient, who is in her 70s, suffers from age-related macular degeneration, a condition in which blood vessels crowd the retina, leading to visual impairment and possibly blindness.

     Her transplant took place at the Institute for Biomedical Research and Innovation Hospital in Kobe. Masayo Takahashi, who leads retinal regeneration projects at the Riken Center for Developmental Biology, created iPS cells from samples of the patient's skin. Yasuo Kurimoto, the hospital's head of ophthalmology, implanted sheets of these cells into damaged areas of the woman's eyes.

     The patient is in stable condition after the surgery, showing no signs of hemorrhaging or other complications, according to the hospital. She will be discharged in about a week, after which she is to undergo periodic eye examinations.

     The primary goal of the transplant is to confirm the safety of iPS cell transplants, IBRI Hospital Director Yukio Hirata said. A particular concern is the possibility of the cells turning cancerous. "We will have succeeded if cancer does not develop after a year," Kurimoto said.

     Because so many of the patient's vision cells have died, the researchers do not expect a major improvement in her eyesight, and any change for the better would likely take one to two years to appear. But they are hopeful the transplant will halt the progress of the disease while placing less burden on the woman than other treatments.

     No new patients are currently scheduled to receive similar transplants. Once legislation on regenerative medicine goes into effect in November, people eager to participate in such clinical studies will need to apply again, according to the hospital.

(Nikkei)

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