Two patients with the most common form of sight-loss have regained their reading vision after ground-breaking treatment.
A man in his 80s and a woman in her 60s were given a special “patch” of stem cells to repair the damage to their eyes from age-related macular degeneration (AMD), as part of a small-scale clinical trial.
Both went from not being able to read at all, even with glasses, to reading 60-80 words a minute with normal reading glasses.
AMD causes rapid loss in the central area of vision and affects more than 600,000 people in the UK.
The new treatment could be available on the NHS within five years.
Douglas Waters, 86, was diagnosed with the severe “wet” form of the disease in July 2015, and was treated with stem cells three months later.
He said: “In the months before the operation my sight was really poor and I couldn’t see anything out of my right eye. I was struggling to see things clearly, even when up-close.
“After the surgery my eyesight improved to the point where I can now read the newspaper and help my wife out with the gardening.
“It’s brilliant what the team have done and I feel so lucky to have been given my sight back.”
The treatment was pioneered at Moorfields Eye Hospital and University College London.
Surgeons engineered a patch of tissue derived from stem cells and inserted it under the retina, the part of the eye that registers an image in a similar way to a digital camera chip.
Professor Lyndon da Cruz, consultant retinal surgeon at Moorfields, said: “The results suggest that this new therapeutic approach is safe and provides good visual outcomes.
“The patients who received the treatment had very severe AMD, and their improved vision will go some way towards enhancing their quality of life.”
The retina, at the back of the eye, is made from several layers. AMD damages the retinal pigment epithelium, which separates blood vessels from the layer of nerves.
In the new treatment, researchers grew stem cells and turned them into a perfect copy of the retinal pigment epithelium.
A patch of cells was inserted in place of the damaged area using a specially engineered surgical tool in an operation lasting between one and two hours, according to the journal Nature Biotech.
Professor Pete Coffey, from UCL Institute of Ophthalmology, said: “We hope this will lead to an affordable ‘off-the-shelf’ therapy that could be made available to NHS patients within the next five years.”