Growing stem cells to save eyesight

Growing stem cells to save eyesight

What if doctors could grow cells that helped anyone recover from a major cause of blindness? Such a procedure may be coming to mass market in the next few years.

An ophthalmologist in Japan has big news about repairing the cornea. That’s the clear part at the front of your eye that helps it focus properly and protects other parts of the eye. The cornea stays healthy, clear and functional because stem cells in the eye work hard to repair it when it’s damaged.

Too much damage can kill these stem cells, leaving the cornea without a natural method of repair. Infections, scratches, chemical exposure, dust or sand in the eye, excess sunlight and traumatic eye injuries can damage the cornea and its stem cells. Corneas can then become scarred. This type of damage is the fourth-leading cause of blindness worldwide.

Nature magazine reports that a partially blind woman in Japan has received a transplant of healthy stem cells into her cornea. Since the surgery, the woman’s vision has improved. But here’s the catch: These stem cells were grown from reprogrammed skin cells of another person.

These reprogrammed cells are known as “induced pluripotent [ploory-potent] stem cells.” By inserting specific genes into human cells, scientists can make them turn into pluripotent stem cells, which can then become any other type of cell.

Until now, corneal transplants have been performed with tissue from deceased donors. But such tissue is scarce in most of the world.

Japanese officials have approved three more of these surgeries. The world will be waiting expectantly. Maybe one day, corneal blindness will be a thing of the past.

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