The cornea is front part of the eye that is transparent and allows light to enter. The cornea is does not have a blood supply and receives its nutrients from diffusion and oxygen directly from the air. Corneal scarring is a major cause of vision loss and blindness. Today researchers at the University of Cincinnati reported a new method of reducing corneal scarring using stem cells in mice.
Mice that suffer from corneal scarring are used for assessment of possible new treatments for this condition. The researchers conducting the study, lead by Winston Whei-Yang Kao, PhD, professor of ophthalmology, at the University of Cincinnati, used a mouse that was genetically engineered to lack a protein called lumican, which is involved in maintaining a clear cornea.
At the 49th Annual Meeting of the American Society of Cell Biology in San Diego today, the researchers presented data indicating that treatment of the lumican deficient mice with stem cells derived from human umbilical cords leads to preservation of vision. The specific type of stem cells used were called mesenchymal stem cells. These cells have been previously demonstrated to be capable of becoming a variety of other tissues when exposed to specific chemicals.
Although corneal transplantation is a relatively established procedure that has saved the vision of many, researchers believe that the use of umbilical cord blood stem cells in this area still has significant potential. "Corneal transplantation is currently the only true cure for restoration of eyesight that may have been lost due to corneal scarring caused by infection, mechanical and chemical wounds and congenital defects of genetic mutations," Kao says. "However, the number of donated corneas suitable for transplantation is decreasing as the number of individuals receiving refractive surgeries, like LASIK, increases."
Dr. Kao also commented on the potential treatment applications possible with the umbilical cord stem cells. "Our results suggest a potential treatment regimen for congenital and/or acquired corneal diseases," he says, adding that the availability of human umbilical stem cells is almost unlimited. These stem cells are easy to isolate and can be recovered quickly from storage when treating patients. "These findings have the potential to create new and better treatments — and an improved quality of life — for patients with vision loss due to corneal injury."
Mesenchymal stem cells have already been demonstrated safe in clinical trials, however, to date efficacy studies are still underway for a variety of conditions. The data presented today suggests how many new possible uses of stem cells exist, and the almost limitless possibilities in the area of regenerative medicine.