Stem Cell Treatment Lets Those With Scorched Corneas See Again

By Joseph Calamia | June 24, 2010 4:25 pm

stem-cell-corneasWhen a person’s cornea is burned it’s not necessarily the splashed chemicals or hot liquids that causes blindness, but the eye’s recovery. Scar tissue, formed from cells in the white part of the eye, can cover the cornea in a cloudy haze. But researchers have found that cells drawn from another part of the body can correct the problem.

A paper published yesterday in the New England Journal of Medicine brings news of a regenerative stem cell treatment that has had striking success: It restored sight to 82 of 117 eyes with burnt corneas, and worked partially on 14 others. The treatment also seems to have a long-lasting impact; in one patient, the beneficial effect has lasted for ten years and counting.

The treatment offers hope to those who received little benefit from existing therapies–such as artificial cornea replacements, which can also be overpowered and clouded by white-colored cells, or stem cell or cornea transplants from cadavers, which patients can reject.

“[The patients] were incredibly happy. Some said it was a miracle,” said one of the study leaders, Graziella Pellegrini of the University of Modena’s Center for Regenerative Medicine in Italy. “It was not a miracle. It was simply a technique.” [AP]

That technique, first performed in 1995, requires harvesting healthy “limbal stem cells” from the cornea’s border. Stefano Ferrari in Italy then grew these cells into a sheet and grafted them onto the cornea. Since the cells come from the patient and not from a donor, the procedure does not have the risk of rejection present with transplants.

The treatment “is like putting on a biological contact lens,” said Dr. Stephen Pflugfelder, a practicing corneal specialist and professor of ophthalmology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, who says the technique works well. A clear cornea–essential to good vision–“is the clear window on the eye,” like a watchglass on a watch, added Pflugfelder, who was not involved with the Italian study but is familiar with its findings. [HealthDay]

For successfully treated patients, vision improved within months, and of those that did not fully regain their sight the treatment still often helped.

Even when not completely effective, the treatment usually alleviated a patient’s sensitivity to light and eye pain, Pellegrini said in a telephone interview. “In any case, the patient has improvement in symptoms,” she said. The researchers were also able to pinpoint which types of cells were more likely to work well. [ABC]

Unfortunately, the technique requires a healthy population of “donor” stem cells from the patient, so it will not work for those who have severely burnt both their corneas (leaving few healthy limbal stem cells). A benefit of the technique is that it requires fewer total stem cells than previous procedures (as ABC reports, about .002 square inches of tissue) since researchers cultivate these sample cells in the lab to make the graft.

Related content:
80beats: Gene Therapy Cures Color Blindness in Monkeys
80beats: The Part of the Brain That Lets the Blind See Without Seeing
80beats: Can Sight Be Restored With Stem Cells Grown on Contact Lenses?
80beats: Brain Reconstruction: Stem-Cell Scaffolding Can Repair Stroke Damage
80beats: Stem Cells Could Regenerate Inner Ear Hairs—and Hearing

Image: New England Journal of Medicine

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • Jon Claerbout

    Those pictures seemed presented as before and afters of each of two people, a miraculous transition, but a little inspection shows the veins are not the same so they are not — as the article source reveals.

  • Eliza Strickland


    These absolutely are before and after shots of the same eyeballs. These images came from the journal article about this work published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

    Eliza, DISCOVER online news editor

  • sanud002

    It seems like the possibilities for the future of stem cell research are truly endless. Those before and after shots are unbelievable. I’ve been following the topic of stem cell research closely now for some years now and this is definitely the most exciting time yet. we are starting to see the results from the flagship studies with stem cells. I’m not sure if you are familiar with Dr. Atala but I’ve been watching his work the most and he has been at the forefront of this medical more than any other. I’ll post a link to some of his work. Hopefully you’ll find it informative.

  • Joseph L March PhD

    I was struck by a rock when I was 5. I am now 59 and can see a little bit out of my right damaged eye. I have some scarring and can see colors and can count fingers up close. I am interested in corneal regeneration. I do have two insurance medical cards.

    Thank you

    Joseph L March PhD

  • levent

    Would this method have any impact on keratoconus?

  • Aamir Shah

    My name is Aamir Shah. I had internal eye injury in 2007. which resulted in my right eye retinaq dqmqage. i had surjery and cleaned out blood but still i cant see on my right eye and a white spot also been apeared on my cornea.
    Please help me out if my treatment is posible at any cost.


    Aamir Shah

  • wish

    im wish my uncle is blind damage eyes vein also damage tissue plzz any possible treatment to cantact us…plzzzzzzzzz

  • wish

    thats my email id contact us plzzzzzzzz

  • Howard Frostman

    Good evening. I have scarring on both corneas from Herpes Simplex Corneal Ulcers, all the way through the right one and would like to know if the stemcell procedure would likely work to create clear corneas in this case. And as both eyes have scarred corneas is it likely or not that the stem cells from my own corneas would work? My age is 73 if that makes any differance.
    Thanks much for your advise. Howard Frostman

  • August Milelr

    Now I showed my wife this blog here and she thought it was spectacular, shes not that computer savvy so Im doin the comment for her, “Great stuff where did you find your information?”

  • Federico Linero

    Common injuries in agricultural work and construction work include: bone fractures from falls, eye injuries from chemicals, debris, or farm equipment; strains or sprains. U?? proper safety glasses t? prevent eye injury ?n case a piece ?f sharp material loosens abruptly. Using hard hat, gloves, safety boots, dust mask ?nd ?th?r protective gear saves construction workers ?t demolition sites fr?m getting h?rt.

  • Shannon

    My left eye (cornea) was burnt in 1997, I have suffered from excruciating pain and light sensitivity for all these years. This science sounds like it could change my life. Are there any clinical trials coming to the US anytime soon? Or are there any US doctors doing studies or procedures?

  • Norman M. Valz

    Shannon, I have the same predicament. Let me know of any alternatives you find. It would be appreciated.


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