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Successful stem cell trial offers hope

Dry age-related macular degeneration affects the central vision. The condition can make it hard to read, judge distances and eventually even recognize faces.
“The aim of my research is to be able to halt or even reverse macular damage, for which there is currently no treatment,” says ophthalmologist and researcher Hammurabi Bartuma.

Hammurabi Bartuma. Photo: Eva Tov
Hammurabi Bartuma is a specialist in eye diseases at St. Erik Eye Hospital, as well as a researcher at Karolinska Institutet. For him, this is an important combination as his clinical work is a constant source of inspiration and ideas. The desire to help patients is a major motivational tool in his research.

“When I meet patients, there’s an obvious need there. Losing your central vision, for example, has a considerable impact on your quality of life,” Hammurabi Bartuma says.

He also thinks that discovering new things is fantastic.

“The feeling I get from knowing that I am at the forefront of research and that right now only I have that knowledge is wonderful.”

Becoming doctor a childhood dream

Hammurabi Bartuma believes that his decision to train as a doctor and become a researcher stems from his childhood. His parents moved to Sweden from southeast Turkey to give their children the chance to enter higher education, which they themselves never had.

“It has certainly had an impact on me. Even as a child I knew that I wanted to become a doctor. Every day I had a new book to read during my free time and hushed the others in order to be able to read in peace and quiet. The books I read were often about the human body. Otherwise I just looked for the thickest book I could find,” he says, chuckling a little.

Two forms of the disease

The macula is located in the middle of the retina. The high concentration of photoreceptor cells in the macula means this is the point of sharpest vision. Around one person in ten over the age of 60 has age-related macular degeneration (AMD). The exact cause of the changes that take place as we age is still unknown.

There are two different forms of degeneration; a less common wet form and a more common dry form. In cases of wet AMD, new blood vessels form in the macula. These easily leak fluid and blood subretinally, producing a rapid deterioration in vision.

The most common symptom is that straight lines appear distorted. It is also common to see a sudden spot in your field of vision.

“The wet form can now be treated, mainly with intraocular injections. It is important to get treatment quickly in order to save as much vision as possible,” explains Hammurabi Bartuma.

In the dry form, the supporting cells die first, followed by the photoreceptor cells in the macula. The disease progress slowly, which is why the deterioration in vision is less dramatic. There is currently no curative treatment.

“This is where my research comes in.”

Hammurabi Bartuma completed his doctorate in laboratory medicine, specialising in experimental clinical genetics, in 2011.

“With my background in genetics, I am able to determine the characteristics of the cells we are looking at in the macula,” he explains.

Successful trial to transplant cells

The research group to which Hammurabi belongs has demonstrated in animal trials that it is possible to transplant new supporting cells into a damaged eye. The new cells are cultivated from stem cells and injected into the eye.

“We can see that the cells move to the right layer and save the retina.”

Hammurabi Bartuma thinks that the method could be tested on patients in the near future.

“Our work is progressing rapidly and the method works very well in our trials, even though it’s too early to draw any conclusions. These are exciting times!”

Text: Lisa Thorsén

Name: Hammurabi Bartuma
Title: Specialist in eye diseases at St. Erik Eye Hospital, and a postdoc at Karolinska Institutet.
Research role: Researcher with Professor Anders Kvanta’s research group, focusing on retinal diseases.
Motto: “Make the most of every moment. Life is fantastic! I think that even more since having children.”
13 december 2019