AstraZeneca took its first significant step into regenerative medicine using stem cells on Monday by signing a deal with University College London to develop ways to repair eyesight in people with diabetes.

Previously, AstraZeneca's interest in stem cells had been primarily in using them as a drug discovery tool.

The three-year research collaboration will see scientists from the drugmaker and the university teaming up to seek new treatments for diabetic retinopathy.

Most patients with type 1 diabetes will develop retinopathy and about 20 to 30 percent will become blind. A large number of patients with type 2, or adult-onset, diabetes also develop retinopathy as their underlying disease progresses.

The research work is early stage and will not result in a medicine getting to market for many years but the collaboration is a sign of big drugmakers' growing interest in the therapeutic potential of stem cells.

The deal also emphasizes AstraZeneca's increasing focus on diabetes as a disease area. The Anglo-Swedish company has a recently launched diabetes drug called Onglyza, which was developed with Bristol-Myers Squibb, and the two partners are also working on a second one called dapagliflozin.