A radical new medical procedure designed to halt the damage caused by a degenerative eye disease is to be tested in Europe's first clinical trial using embryonic stem cells.

Twelve volunteer patients suffering from Stargardt's macular dystrophy, which is incurable and develops in childhood, will have cells injected directly into their eyes to test the procedure.

If successful, the treatment will not just open up a wide range of possible treatments for eye diseases, but would be a huge boost for medicine because embryonic stem cells are thought to hold the key to tackling many types of disease.

Embryonic stem cells are regarded as "master cells" which have the potential to be develop into many different cell types.

The trial was announced by Moorfields Eye Hospital and will be led by Professor James Bainbridge, who said: "This is the first time embryonic stem cells have been used here. They have great potential to be able to regenerate a variety of different tissues and organs. It's very exciting now to be at the stage where we can begin to explore that potential."

If they are as successful as researchers hope, a treatment based on the trials could be available in five to 10 years.