A team of scientists have discovered that use of a gene that contributes to the growth of stem cells in the eye can help the cornea heal more quickly after it has been damaged due to trauma or disease.
Much like the skin, the cornea is constantly damaged by exposure to the outside world. In order to repair itself, the cornea has a reserve of limbal stem cells, or cells on the outside edge of the cornea. When the corneal cells become damaged, the limbal stem cells are there to replenish them. However, many patients do not have that reserve of stem cells, and will require a corneal transplant if the cornea suffers extensive damage due to an injury, or disease. It is difficult for an ophthalmologist to identify these cells, making it hard to determine who will be a successful transplant patient.
The researchers at several Harvard-affiliated institutions in Boston determined through research and trials that mice are deficient in a gene called ABCB5, which serves as a marker for the presence of limbal stem cells. By using transplants of ABCB5-positive limbal stem cells from humans, doctors were able to restore the corneas of the mice in their trials.
This new method of restoring corneal tissue may help to restore the vision of many patients who have suffered corneal damage. “This finding will now make it much easier to restore the corneal surface,” said Dr. Bruce Ksander, associate professor of ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School. “It’s a very good example of basic research moving quickly to a translational application.”