By Elizabeth Cohen, CNN, January 23, 2012.

Two women with untreatable eye diseases said they had dramatic improvements in their vision after injections of human embryonic stem cells, making it the first documented time these controversial cells have helped someone.

“This is a big step forward for regenerative medicine, said Dr. Steven Schwartz at UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute. “It’s nowhere near a treatment for vision loss, but it’s a signal that embryonic stem-cell based strategies may work.”

Schwartz added several caveats – that the study was preliminary, only in two patients, and that it’s difficult to measure vision in low-vision patients. But even so he was “thrilled and excited” about the study.

Schwartz and his colleagues published their study in The Lancet. For each patient, stem cells derived from an embryo were injected into their retinal tissue. They had to take anti-rejection drugs for a short period so their eyes wouldn’t reject the foreign tissue.

Before her stem cell surgery in July, Sue Freeman, 78, couldn’t take a walk, go shopping or cook by herself because of macular degeneration, a disease that affects millions of Americans and for which there is no cure.

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