The cornea is a transparent structure at the front of the eye and is mainly responsible for focusing of incoming light rays on the retina for clear vision. The health of cornea is maintained by stem cells present at the junction of cornea and sclera (the white part of the eye) called as limbus.
If the limbal stem cells themselves are damaged, the healing of corneal tissue becomes impaired.
Scientists at University of Georgia’s Regenerative Bioscience Center are working on a stem cell treatment for eyes with which they will be able to use stem cells to restore the ability of cornea to repair itself.
According to James Lauderdale, an associate professor of cellular biology in UGA’s Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, “Damage to the limbus, which is where the clear part of the eye meets the white part of the eye, can cause the cornea to break down very rapidly. The only way to repair the cornea right now is do a limbal cell transplant from donated tissue.”
Stem cells can be described as undifferentiated cells that have the ability to differentiate into specialized cells and can potentially produce more stem cells by cellular division.
As per American Academy of Ophthalmology, “The limbus is classically known as the location for epithelial stem cells. Anatomically, LESCs (Limbal Epithelial Stem Cells) as small clusters are located within the basal epithelial papillae of the Palisades of Vogt. The Palisades of Vogt are radially orientated fibrovascular ridges that are more densely located at the superior and inferior limbal borders.”
In the study, Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM), developed by Todd Sulchek, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech, was used to select healthy cells with greater ability to differentiate into mature cells.
They also developed a microfluidic cell sorting device which can pick out specific cells from the tissue of the patient. The advantage of this new technique is that the whole process of collecting the patient’s tissue, identifying and selecting the stem cells with the maximum potential to regenerate and heal the cornea and transplanting those cells into the patient’s eye can be done on the same day.
The technique is still being developed and refined. It will hopefully be available in the coming years to the patients with corneal damage caused by injury and disease. Gene therapy is another possible modality of treating corneal diseases which is not possible with other medical or surgical treatment.