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Queen's study aims to use stem cells to help save sight of diabetes sufferers

Scientists at Queen's University Belfast are hoping to develop a novel approach that could save the sight of millions of diabetes sufferers using adult stem cells

Queen's University Belfast

Scientists at Queen's University Belfast are hoping to develop a novel approach that could save the sight of millions of diabetes sufferers using adult stem cells.

Currently millions of diabetics worldwide are at risk of sight loss due to a condition called Diabetic Retinopathy. This is when high blood sugar causes the blood vessels in the eye to become blocked or to leak. Failed blood flow harms the retina and leads to vision impairment and if left untreated can lead to blindness.

The novel REDDSTAR study (Repair of Diabetic Damage by Stromal Cell Administration) involving researchers from Queen's Centre for Vision and Vascular Science in the School of Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Sciences, will see them isolating stem cells from donors, expanding them in a laboratory setting and re-delivering them to a patient where they help to repair the blood vessels in the eye. This is especially relevant to patients with diabetes were the vessels of the retina become damaged.

At present there are very few treatments available to control the progression of diabetic complications. There are no treatments which will improve glucose levels and simultaneously treat the diabetic complication.

The €6 million EU funded research is being carried out with NUI Galway and brings together experts from Northern Ireland, Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Portugal and the US.

Professor Alan Stitt, Director of the Centre for Vision and Vascular Science in Queen's and lead scientist for the project said: "The Queen's component of the REDDSTAR study involves investigating the potential of a unique stem cell population to promote repair of damaged blood vessels in the retina during diabetes. The impact could be profound for patients, because regeneration of damaged retina could prevent progression of diabetic retinopathy and reduce the risk of vision loss.

"Currently available treatments for diabetic retinopathy are not always satisfactory. They focus on end-stages of the disease, carry many side effects and fail to address the root causes of the condition. A novel, alternative therapeutic approach is to harness adult stem cells to promote regeneration of the damaged retinal blood vessels and thereby prevent and/or reverse retinopathy."

"This new research project is one of several regenerative medicine approaches ongoing in the centre. The approach is quite simple: we plan to isolate a very defined population of stem cells and then deliver them to sites in the body that have been damaged by diabetes. In the case of some patients with diabetes, they may gain enormous benefit from stem cell-mediated repair of damaged blood vessels in their retina. This is the first step towards an exciting new therapy in an area where it is desperately needed."

The research focuses on specific adult stem-cells derived from bone-marrow. Which are being provided by Orbsen Therapeutics, a spin-out from the Science Foundation Ireland-funded Regenerative Medicine Institute (REMEDI) at NUI Galway.

The project will develop ways to grow the bone-marrow-derived stem cells. They will be tested in several preclinical models of diabetic complications at centres in Belfast, Galway, Munich, Berlin and Porto before human trials take place in Denmark.


Queen's Centre for Vision and Vascular Science is a key focus of the University's ambitious £140m 'together we can go Beyond' fundraising campaign. It is due to expand its Vision Sciences programme further when the University's new £32m Wellcome-Wolfson Centre for Experimental Medicine opens in 2015. Along with vision, two new programmes in Diabetes and Genomics will also be established in the new Centre which is set to stimulate additional investment, lead to further global collaborations and create more opportunities for new health and biotech companies in Northern Ireland.

Further information on the Centre for Vision and Vascular Science at Queen's is available online at

For more information please contact Anne-Marie Clarke at Queen's University Communications Office on +44 (0)28 9097 5320

Notes to editors

1. Professor Alan Stitt is available for interview.

2. The Centre for Vision and Vascular Science (CVVS) at Queen's University Belfast is a multidisciplinary research centre focussed on eye disease and vascular dysfunction, particularly relating to diabetic complications. The Centre has over 60 basic and clinical scientists working within the vision and microvascular research niches. The Centre's mission is to develop new avenues for the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of important ophthalmic and vascular diseases to relieve human suffering. To achieve this, CVVS is developing self-sustaining, multidisciplinary, collaborative, translational research programmes to advance new therapies that will ultimately benefit patients.

3. Funding for this project is through EU-FP7 (

4. Beyond: Queen's University Belfast is embarking on a new and ambitious fundraising Together we can go...Beyond' campaign to raise £140m over the next five years. Funds raised will be used to provide the ultimate student experience and increase and enhance the impact the University makes on society and the economy, locally and internationally, particularly in the areas of Medicine, Astrophysics, Green Chemistry, Cybersecurity, Food Security and Humanities. Queen's vision for medicine is to make the University and Northern Ireland a world leader in medical research, education and patient care. £32M has already been raised to establish a new world-leading Centre for Experimental Medicine which will specialise in scientific research into finding cures for eye disease, diabetes and developing a global programme into understanding the genetics of complex chronic diseases. The Centre for Experimental Medicine will allow the expansion of the Vision Sciences programme and the establishment of two additional new programmes in Diabetes and Genomics.

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