Professor Pete Coffey, Professor of Cellular Therapies at the Institute of Ophthalmology, University College London, is an MRC-funded researcher who is developing a stem cell therapy for a degenerative eye condition that is the leading cause of blindness in UK adults. He spoke to Katherine Nightingale about the long road to the clinic.
Researchers seldom like to predict how long it might be before their discoveries are tested in patients. “At least five years” is a typical response, but one that should usually be taken with a pinch of salt. Research is complex, there are many obstacles to overcome, and some promising ideas never get anywhere near a clinic.
All the more surprising then that Pete Coffey gave himself and his team five years from 2007 to ready a stem cell therapy for a degenerative eye condition for clinical trials. And perhaps more surprising still — he’s done it.
The condition in question is age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Most people with AMD have the ‘dry’ form, which occurs when a carpet of cells behind the retina start to die. These retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells nourish the ‘seeing’ cells of the retina, as well as removing dead cells that would otherwise build up and cause damage. People with AMD gradually lose sight from a part of the retina called the macula, which is responsible for sharpness of vision in the centre of the visual field — the vision needed for reading, driving and recognising faces. There is no treatment for dry AMD.