* Advanced Cell enrolls first two patients
* Studies will test cells made from embryonic stem cells
* Cell transplants expected in next few weeks-company exec
By Julie Steenhuysen
CHICAGO, June 16 Two patients with two
different forms of vision loss will soon start treatments made
from embryonic stem cells as Advanced Cell Technology ACTC.OB
kicks off two early-stage clinical trials using the
controversial and powerful cells.
The patients were enrolled at the Jules Stein Eye Institute
at the University of California, Los Angeles, Advanced Cell
said on Thursday. It did not release the patients' names.
The company won U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval
in January to try out human embryonic stem cells for treating
macular degeneration, a common cause of vision loss.
That followed FDA approval in November to test human
embryonic stem cells to treat people with a progressive form of
blindness called Stargardt's macular dystrophy.
Both trials will test the safety and tolerability of
retinal pigment epithelial, or RPE cells, which ACT makes from
human embryonic stem cells.
Each study will enroll 12 patients, with groups of three
testing different doses of the cells.
Dr. Robert Lanza, chief scientific officer of ACT, said in
an email that the company planned to start stem cell
transplants within the next few weeks.
"After a decade of extensive research and preclinical
studies, it is very satisfying to finally be moving into the
clinic," Lanza said in a statement. "We hope that these cells
will, in the future, provide a treatment not only for these two
untreatable diseases -- Stargardt's disease and macular
degeneration -- but for patients suffering from a range other
debilitating eye diseases."
Age-related macular degeneration, or AMD, is a slowly
progressing disease that first blurs vision and later causes a
big black hole in the field of sight.
Dry AMD is the most common form of macular degeneration and
the leading cause of blindness in the developed world, said
UCLA's Dr. Steven Schwartz, who is leading the studies. The
number of cases is expected to double over the next 20 years as
the population ages, he noted.
In October, Geron Corp (GERN.O) enrolled the first patient
in the first approved study of human embryonic stem cells, to
treat people whose spinal cords have been crushed.
Stem cells are the body's master cells, the source of all
other cells. Embryonic stem cells, taken from days-old human
embryos, are especially pliable.
Scientists hope to be able to use them to address spinal
cord injuries, cancer, diabetes and diseases such as
Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
Opponents object to their use because to get the cells,
someone has to take apart a human embryo.
Last year, the Obama administration overturned the
strictest limitations on using federal funds for the research,
but last summer, two researchers challenged the policy. In
April, a U.S. appeals court has ruled that funding can
(Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)