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In a bid to harness the potential of embryonic stem cells, surgeons in California have implanted lab-grown retinal cells into the eyes of two patients going blind from macular degeneration.

The procedures were carried out on Tuesday by Steven Schwartz, chief of the retina division at the Jules Stein Eye Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles. They were financed by Advanced Cell Technology, a biotech company with laboratories in Marlborough, Massachusetts, that recently won approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to test the treatment in 24 patients suffering from either dry advanced macular degeneration, or a juvenile form of the disease known as Stargardt’s.

The two patients, whose names weren’t released, are among the first volunteers ever to receive a treatment created using embryonic stem cells. Last year, another biotech company, Geron, began a small study using stem cells in a bid to repair spinal cord injury.

Researchers see the start of a second set of tests, in blindness, as an important landmark for the stem-cell field. It is also a major step for Advanced Cell, a tiny firm that has long been at the center of stem-cell controversies. Anti-abortion protesters once protested outside the company, and investors were fearful. Twice the company laid off nearly its entire staff when its bank accounts hit zero.

“Things were crazy for a long while,” says Robert Lanza, medical director at Advanced Cell, and one of 22 full-time employees. “Times have really changed. The field is much tamer now.”

The start of the clinical trials is likely to stir hopes of a big payday among investors. Advanced Cell’s stock price has risen 170 percent during the last year, valuing the firm at $285 million based on Tuesday’s stock price. Investors hope it could be worth several billion should the therapy succeed. Nearly 10 million Americans suffer from some form of macular degeneration.

So far, however, embryonic stem-cell research has been a money loser. Advanced Cell has run up losses of more than $180 million since it was founded in the mid-1990s. In recent years, it sold off programs for cloning cattle, and abandoned controversial efforts to clone human embryos in favor of a narrower approach.

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Credit: Advanced Cell Technologies

Tagged: Biomedicine, stem cells, blindness, embryonic stem cells

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