According to new research from the journal Nature, people suffering vision loss may one day have new corneas and lenses grown from their own cells and be able to skip the transplants that are currently used today.
A research team said they had managed to engineer corneas from stem cells in the lab, while another regenerated lenses inside the human eye.
Julie Daniels, who works at the University College London Institute of Opthalmology, has been analysing the work.
“These studies illustrate remarkable regenerative and therapeutic potential of stem cells,” she stated in a paper released recently.
“To work perfectly, the cornea and lens must be absolutely transparent. Sometimes, due to disease or aging, these become opaque and need to be replaced with a donor or artificial transplant. Such procedures are not foolproof, and in some cases the transplants are rejected by the recipient’s body.”
These stem cells offer hope as they can be taken from the patient’s own body, thereby limiting rejection risk. Stem cells are primitive cells that, as they mature, differentiate into the various specialized cells that make up the different organs.
Until a few years ago, the only way to obtain stem cells was to harvest them from human embryos, a controversial practice as it required the destruction of the embryo.
But now scientists have developed induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPSCs, which are mature cells turned back to an earlier, versatile state from which they can re-diversify.
For the first study, scientists in the United States and China developed a new way to remove and replace damaged eye lenses in people with cataracts. The current surgical method leaves a large incision which can easily become inflamed.
In the new procedure, a team extracted the lens through a much smaller hole than the existing procedure requires, and also left behind many more naturally-occurring, lens-creating stem cells called LECs. These were stimulated into building a new lens.
The method was successful in rabbits and macaques, and later in 12 human children, giving us the potential to transfer these results over to big and better research paths, and eventually allowing for the research to become a fully-fledged medical operation.