Contact lenses have been used to correct vision for a long time—but what if you could wear one that would actually help heal blindness? This kind of healing contact lens is exactly what researchers at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, have created to restore vision to three legally blind patients who had damaged corneas. What's really intriguing is that the researchers used stem cells from the patients' own eyes as part of the healing process.
Stem Cells For Eye Repair
Yes, stem cells are what did the trick. The cornea is constantly replenished from a bank of stem cells. In each of these patients, however, that bank had been depleted or damaged.
The researchers began by taking a small tissue biopsy of the cornea that contained stem cells from each patient's healthy eye, plus a blood sample that was used to create a serum to nourish the stem cells. The cells were placed on a therapeutic contact lens and immersed in the serum, taking about 10 days to grow sufficiently to cover the lens. A surgeon then scraped each patient's cornea to remove abnormal cells, after which the lens was placed on the damaged eye in a procedure that took about a half hour. The lens remained in place for two weeks, during which time the stem cells transferred to the damaged cornea, eventually creating a healthy corneal surface. Vision improved for all three patients, one of whom even went from being legally blind to passing a vision test for a driver's license. Since the technique is new, there is no long-term experience to know if the change is permanent, but the effects in this study have thus far lasted beyond the eight to 13 months of follow-up.
Easy To Expand Upon
One really exciting aspect of this particular course of treatment is that it is actually very low-tech and therefore easy for physicians to learn and perform, said Nick Di Girolamo, PhD, director of ocular research at the University of New South Wales and lead researcher in this project. "The simplicity of this technique means that it can ultimately be performed anywhere in the world," he said, "providing it is performed under sterile conditions by an experienced ophthalmic surgeon with proper facilities to culture cells." The cells and serum are the patient's own, so there's no need for immunosuppressive drugs, and the procedure itself is quick, so there is minimal time in the hospital.
Keep in mind that this treatment is still very, very new-only those three patients have had it so far. Much more research and follow-up need to be done before it can be used everywhere. Still, for the millions who suffer from cornea-related vision loss, this research could make the future look bright, indeed.
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