In a world-first breakthrough by Australian scientists, the eyesight in a damaged eye has been restored by using stem cells from the eye itself.
The scientists at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) say the technique improves patients' vision within weeks and the results are exciting.
The medical researchers from UNSW's School of Medical Sciences used stem cells cultured on a simple contact lens to restore sight to sufferers of blinding corneal disease and they say within weeks of the simple, inexpensive procedure, sight was significantly improved and only a minimal hospital stay was required.
The research team harvested stem cells from patients' own eyes which were then cultured on a common therapeutic contact lens - this was then placed onto the damaged cornea for 10 days and the cells were able to re-colonise the damaged eye surface and rehabilitated the damaged cornea.
The trial was conducted on three patients; two with extensive corneal damage resulting from multiple surgeries to remove ocular melanomas, and one with the genetic eye condition aniridia (a congenital condition affecting both eyes) - corneas can also be damaged by chemical or thermal burns, bacterial infection and chemotherapy.
Dr. Nick Di Girolamo, lead author of the study says the procedure is simple and cheap and unlike other techniques, it requires no foreign human or animal products, only the patient's own serum.
Dr. Di Girolamo says it requires no suturing, no major operation and is completely non-invasive and all that is involved is harvesting a minute amount - less than a millimeter - of tissue from the ocular surface and because the procedure uses the patient's own stem cells harvested from their eye, it is ideal for sufferers of unilateral eye disease and also works in patients who have had both eyes damaged.
In the patients with aniridia, instead of taking the stem cells from the other cornea, the team took them from another part of the eye altogether - the conjunctiva - which also harbours stem cells and Dr Di Girolamo says the stem cells were able to change from the conjunctival phenotype to a corneal phenotype after they were put onto the cornea.
Sight for sore eyes
He says "that is the beauty of stem cells".
The therapeutic contact lens used in the trial was of a type commonly used worldwide after ocular surface surgery but of the several brands on the market, only one was suitable for growing the stem cells.
The researchers say the new procedure offers hope to people with a range of blinding eye conditions and could have applications in other organs such as the skin, which behaves in a very similar way to the cornea.
The research appears in the current issue of the journal Transplantation.