Blind could be cured by stem cells grown in contact lenses, claim scientists
2010-07-26 0:00

By Richard Alleyne |

A common cause of blindness could be cured by stem cells grown on contact lenses, claim scientists.

Sight for Sore Eyes

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Researchers say the world breakthrough can "dramatically improve" the sight of patients with damage to their cornea – the clear outer shell of the eye – caused by disease or injury.

The effect is achieved within weeks, at little cost, little surgery as well as minimal hospital stay, say the scientists.

If early findings bear out then the treatment could be affective for thousands of patients in Britain and is so cheap it could be used for millions more in the Third World.

"We are very excited by this technique, " said Dr Nick Di Girolamo, lead researcher from the University of New South Wales in Australia. "The procedure is totally simple and cheap."

The research team removed tissue with regenerative stem cells from patients’ own eyes and then multiplied them in the laboratory on the surface of a contact lens.

This was then placed back onto the damaged cornea for 10 days, during which the cells, which can turn into any other sort of cell, were able to recolonise and "patch" the damaged eye surface.

Within weeks the patients saw dramatic improvements in their vision.
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 surgery to remove tumours, and one with the genetic eye condition aniridia where people have no irises.
Other causes of cornea damage can include chemical or thermal burns, bacterial infection and chemotherapy.

Dr Di Girolamo, who published his findings in the journal Transplantation, said 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."

The researchers are hopeful the technique can be adapted for use in other parts of the eye, such as the retina, and even in other organs.
"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," Dr Di Girolamo said.

Prof Kuldip Sidhu is Director of the Stem Cell Lab and Chair of Stem Cell Biology, at the University of New South Wales described the technique as a "clever step forward".

He called for a bigger study to confirm the results.

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