Can Sight Be Restored With Stem Cells Grown on Contact Lenses?

By Eliza Strickland | May 28, 2009 10:49 am

eyeThree patients with severe damage to the corneas of their eyes have achieved dramatic improvements in their vision thanks to contact lenses coated with their own stem cells. While the study was extremely small and the results are quite preliminary, the unequivocal improvement seen in the three patients has given doctors hope that the treatment may work for many patients with damaged corneas. Two of the three patients were legally blind in the treated eye; they can now read big letters on the eye chart. The third could read the top few rows of the chart but is now able to pass the vision test for a driving license [The Australian].

The cornea is the transparent layer that covers the eye – but it can lose transparency, damaging sight. In the most serious cases, people can need cornea grafts or transplants. Corneal disease can be caused by genetic disorders, surgery, burns, infections or chemotherapy. In this study, all three patients had damage to the epithelium – the layer of cells covering the front of the cornea [BBC News].

In the new treatment, described in a paper in the journal Transplantation, researchers performed a minor surgery to withdraw limbal stem cells from each patient’s eye. Limbal stem cells have been transplanted before in experimental vision treatments, but researchers Nick Di Girolamo and Stephanie Watson had the idea of culturing the stem cells on extended-wear contact lenses, which are easy to handle. The patients wore the lenses for just 10 days, during which time the stem cells, which can turn into any other sort of cell, were able to recolonise and “patch” the damaged eye surface [Telegraph]. The researchers say that the patients’ sight improved significantly within weeks of the treatment; 18 months later, the patients still have healthy corneas and improved vision.

The researchers note that if the cheap and simple treatment bears up under more extensive studies, the procedure could be a boon to people across the world. Di Girolamo says that the beauty of the technique was that it required “no major operation” with only a minute amount – about a millimetre – of eye tissue to be removed, grown and replaced. “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” [Telegraph]. 

Related Content:
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80beats: Stem Cells Could Regenerate Inner Ear Hairs—and Hearing
80beats: Brain Reconstruction: Stem-Cell Scaffolding Can Repair Stroke Damage
80beats: Gene Therapy Restores Sight to the Blind

Image: flickr / Endlisnis

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • Sundance

    Wow! This is utterly fantastic. I can’t help wondereing if this could replace laser surgery to treat short-sightedness and astigmatism too, by using a shaped contact lens that causes the new stem-cell layer to grow in such a way that it compensates for distortion of the cornea – in effect making a permanent living contact lens that persists after the artificial contact lens is removed.

  • http://clubneko.net Nick

    Wow this is pretty amazing.

    Too bad it’s not happening in America. I notice the blog carefully made no mention of the country of origin of this treatment. Good for the Australians for pushing through with stem-cell treatment. Stem cells are so f’ing amazing – but so easy to use the treatments don’t cost much money,and thusly fought against by powerful pharmacological interests – can’t sell you drugs for a lifetime if a $1000 stem cell treatment can fix anything. They can’t even sell you the stem cells, because we can now make them out of you.

  • Wayne

    @Sundance, your idea for the stem cell application is fantastic imo! And laser surgery is so expensive (here anyhow). I can see your vision (er..pun), for this application of the technique being realized v soon! .. let’s hope so anyway!
    @Nick – ..totally agree with you. I can’t see how anyone would find it unethical to use your own stem cells from your own eye to regrow the ocular ‘spare parts’ you need! Regarding costs, the Hollows Foundation has been restoring sight to the blind in developing countries for an average of $25 per eye! I could envisage that the described ocular stem cell treatment might be incredibly inexpensive/affordable in the near future, and therefore a miracle for blind people in developing nations. Let’s hope the emerging technologies and treatment programs can somehow be safeguarded (from dollar-driven ‘juggernauts’/interests) by philanthropists, charities, and even far-sighted governments (pardon pun)..

  • http://lukebayes.com Luke Bayes

    I’ve been following your blog for almost a year now, and am writing to let you know that I sadly have to unsubscribe. While your articles are often a pleasure to read, I almost never get enough of a summary to decide. You provide a single sentence – and often not even that in the summary. So frustrating.

    But the bigger reason is actually your blog software – every time you edit a published article, it’s added again to my RSS reader. This means that for most of your articles – the ones I get less than a single sentence of – I see them 10 or 15 times jamming up my reading experience.

    Please let me know if you’re able to resolve these issues, as I do enjoy the articles.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/ Eliza Strickland

    Luke — sorry to hear of your frustration. Of course I’d like you to stick around. Which RSS reader do you use? On the Google reader, the 80beats feed includes the first 2 paragraphs of every post. That reader also doesn’t repeat postings, to my knowledge.

  • Annie

    This is an answer to my prayers, where in the USA can I get this done?!

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/ Eliza Strickland

    Annie — this procedure is still in the experimental stage, and isn’t available commercially. You can ask your doctor to keep an eye out for clinical trials involving limbal stem cell transplants (or you can search for trials yourself with web sites like clinicaltrials.gov), but that’s really the only possibility for now.

  • Richard Lim

    Will this breakthru helps those suffering from Retinitis Pigmentosa ?

  • http://discovermagazine.com Robert Handley

    Will this treatment work for Fuch’s Corneal Dystrophy ?

  • Pragashinee

    hi! i don’t have a comment on the above article but i have a query! my husband lost his eye in a hijacking a while ago and had to have a prosthetic eye inseted. we have heard of other organs being reporduced through stem cell , etc and we were just wondering whether the eye can be replaced. then my husband could enjoy vision in his eye again. please advise if you know of any new developments in this regard. thank you!!!

  • http://www.pondforfish.com Pond Fish

    I got lasik ad I have to say I really enjoy not wearing contacts anymore!

  • http://www.1stopbingoguide.info Guide4uslots

    My partner and I stumbled over here different page and thought I may as well check things out. I like what I see so i am just following you. Look forward to checking out your web page yet again.

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