Stem cells restore sight, almost miraculously

May 28th, 2009 - 11:55 am ICT by IANS  

Sydney, May 28 (IANS) Stem cells cultured by researchers on a simple contact lens miraculously restored sight to sufferers of blinding corneal disease.
The simple and inexpensive procedure, considered a breakthrough, requires a minimal hospital stay and significantly improves vision within weeks.

University of New South Wales (UNSW) researchers from its School of Medical Sciences harvested stem cells from patients’ own eyes to rehabilitate the damaged cornea.

The stem cells were cultured on a common therapeutic contact lens which was then placed onto the damaged cornea for 10 days, during which the cells were able to re-colonise the damaged eye surface.

While the novel procedure was used to rehabilitate damaged corneas, the researchers say it offers hope to people with a range of blinding eye conditions and could have applications in other organs.

The trial was conducted on three patients; two with extensive corneal damage resulting from multiple surgeries to remove ocular melanomas (a cancer of the eye), and one with the genetic eye condition aniridia.

Other causes of cornea damage can include chemical or thermal burns, bacterial infection and chemotherapy.

“The procedure is totally simple and cheap,” said study author, UNSW’s Nick Di Girolamo. “Unlike other techniques, it requires no foreign human or animal products, only the patient’s own serum, and is completely non-invasive.

“There’s no suturing, there is no major operation: all that’s involved is harvesting a minute amount - less than a millimetre - of tissue from the ocular surface,” Di Girolamo said.

“If you’re going to be treating these sorts of diseases in third world countries all you need is the surgeon and a lab for cell culture. You don’t need any fancy equipment.”

Because the procedure uses the patient’s own stem cells harvested from their eye, it is ideal for sufferers of unilateral eye disease. However, it also works in patients who have had both eyes damaged, Di Girolamo said, according to an UNSW release.

“If we can do this procedure in the eye, I don’t see why it wouldn’t work in other major organs such as the skin, which behaves in a very similar way to the cornea,” Di Girolamo said.

These findings appeared in the journal Transplantation this week.

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