Helping the Blind to See: Scientists Regrow Human Corneas From Adult Stem Cells

Rebecca Taylor | July 9, 2014

We often do not think about our eyes until we injure them. As a lab rat, I am particularly keen on eye safety as I have seen first hand what can happen in less than a blink of an eye. At the risk of sounding like a public service announcement, wear your safety goggles people! Whether you are working with chemicals, power tools, or a simple hedge trimmer, it is often the times when you don’t think you need them that they can protect you the most.

One of the parts of the eye that needs protecting is the cornea. The cornea is the clear part of the eye that protects the pupil and iris. Corneal damage is the most common cause of blindness. For those who have damaged corneas, this stem cell breakthrough is good news.

Researchers in Boston were able to identify and isolate difficult-t- find adult stem cells from deceased donors that were able to regrow human corneas. BBCNews reports:

Scientists have developed a new technique to regrow human corneas.

Using key tracer molecules, researchers have been able to hunt down elusive cells in the eye capable of regeneration and repair.

They transplanted these regenerative stem cells into mice – creating fully functioning corneas.

Writing in the journal Nature, they say this method may one day help restore the sight of victims of burns and chemical injuries. 

Limbal stem cells (LSC) are crucial for healthy eyesight – these cells work to maintain, repair and completely renew our corneas every few weeks.

Without them the cornea – the transparent outermost layer of the eye – would become cloudy and our vision disrupted.

A deficiency of these cells due to disease or damage through injury to the eye are among the commonest reasons behind blindness worldwide.

But the cells have so far been extremely difficult to identify, buried in a matrix of other structures in the limbal part of the eye – the junction between the cornea and the white of the eye (the sclera).

Hopefully this technique will translate into human patients and be able to repair or reconstruct corneas for those who need them. And no embryos need to be created or destroyed.