Stem cell delivery could shine a light on blindness

Engineers at the U.K.'s University of Sheffield are supporting biomedical science by developing a delivery platform that can nurture stem cells in the eye and support them while they regenerate damaged corneas. Stem cell research is a buzzing area, with opportunities to regenerate missing or damaged tissue, but delivery can be an issue.

Pockets of stem cells naturally occur around the edge of the cornea (the clear part of the eye), and these appear to help the eye regenerate itself. However, these can be lost or damaged in eye injury or disease, and this is where the university engineers step in. They have created a clear disc, preloaded with stem cells from the patient's healthy eye, that sits over the surface of the eye. The disc includes artificial niches that mimic those found in the cornea, and these nurture and protect the stem cells, which then reproduce and repair the eye naturally. The disc is made from the same material as dissolvable sutures and breaks down over time. There's more detail in the paper published in Acta Biomaterialia.

"The material across the center 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," says Ílida Ortega Asencio from Sheffield's Faculty of Engineering.

Blindness is a critical issue in the developing world, where it has a major impact on income and education. To be effective in this market, this treatment would have to be low-cost, simple and long-lasting.

While stem cells are already used to treat damage to the cornea, they can fail after time because the stem cells don't stick around. The researchers believe that this treatment could be more successful because the pockets hold the stem cells in place, and it could be easier and safer to access as it doesn't need the use of banked tissues. However, as it's still early days it's not clear how long this system will last in the eye, or whether it's a once-and-for-all cure or an ongoing treatment. The team is planning trials in patients in India.

- read the press release
- see the abstract