Sunday, 9 December 2012

New stem cell grafting technique may help damaged eyes regain vision

Engineers from the University of Sheffield, recently announced the development of a new biodegradable scaffold for delivering stem cells to the eye. They hope that this new type of graft will help the human body to repair accident or disease induced cornea damage, helping millions of people retain, improve or even regain their sight. The cornea is the transparent front part of the eye covering the iris, pupil, and anterior chamber.

The team has described and developed a new method for producing membranes for fixating stem cells onto the damaged area of the eye. According to them, their method provides better results than the currently available ones. As mentioned before, this new technique aims to  treat cornea damage, which is one of the leading factors of blindness throughout the world.

The researchers used a combination of microstereolithography and electrospinning to develop a biodegradable disc. The disc is first loaded with stem cells and is then placed over the cornea. After the disc has been implanted, the stem cells start to multiply, treating the damaged cornea.

The most distinguishing characteristic of the disc, is that it features pockets which house and protect the loaded stem cells. These pockets are very similar to the niches found around the rim of a healthy human cornea.

“The disc has an outer ring containing pockets into which stem cells taken from the patient’s healthy eye can be placed. The material across the centre of the disc is thinner than the ring, so it will biodegrade more quickly allowing the stem cells to proliferate across the surface of the eye to repair the cornea.” as explained by EPSRC Fellow, Dr Ílida Ortega Asencio

Image showing where the eye's cornea is found
Image showing  the location of the Cornea

Professor Sheila MacNeil says laboratory tests have shown that the membranes do support cell growth and a human clinical trial in India is expected to follow. According to her, the materials used in the disc are already in use as biodegradable sutures for the eye, and she believes that they will be able to move to human clinical trials very quickly.

As of now, the standard treatments for corneal defects include corneal transplants and stem cells grafted on human-donor amniotic membranes. In many cases, it only takes a few years for the latter treatment to fail and additional treatments are required. If the cornea is left untreated, thick white scar tissue starts to form across it, which in return leads to partial or even total blindness.

According to Dr Frederick Claeyssens, their biodegradable disc not only delivers better results but also solves the problem of requiring donor tissue.

“The current treatments for corneal blindness use donor tissue to deliver the cultured cells which means that you need a tissue bank. But not everyone has access to banked tissues and it is impossible to completely eliminate all risks of disease transmission with living human tissue.“By using a synthetic material, it will eliminate some of the risk to patients and be readily available for all surgeons. We also believe that the overall treatment using these discs will not only be better than current treatments, it will be cheaper as well.” 

Ortega, �., Ryan, A., Deshpande, P., MacNeil, S., & Claeyssens, F. (2013). Combined microfabrication and electrospinning to produce 3-D architectures for corneal repair Acta Biomaterialia, 9 (3), 5511-5520 DOI: 10.1016/j.actbio.2012.10.039

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