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Readily accessible eye stem cells could be used to treat blindness

6 October 2014
Appeared in BioNews 774

A pool of stem cells found on the surface of the eye can be used to form light-sensitive cells that could one day treat blindness, researchers have reported.

The stem cells are located in a part of the eye called the corneal limbus, which forms the border between the cornea and the white of the eye. The researchers grew the cells in the lab and cultured them to behave like photoreceptor cells that allow light detection.

The researchers hope these cells will prove useful in the treatment of conditions such as age-related macular degeneration, which is the leading cause of blindness in the developed world.

Professor Andrew Lotery, a consultant ophthalmologist at Southampton General Hospital, who led the study, said: 'These cells are readily accessible, which makes them an attractive cell resource for future therapies. This would help avoid complications with rejection or contamination because the cells taken from the eye would be returned to the same patient'.

Future therapies using these stem cells could possibly take the stem cells from the patient's eye, convert them into the light sensitive cells of the retina, and then transplant the new retina cells into the patient. The cells have been found in human patients as old as 97, meaning treatment using the cells is likely to be available to older patients.

More research is now needed to improve the process and get the new light-sensitive cells to combine with the retina.

Clara Eaglen, Royal National Institute for the Blind eye health campaigns manager, told the Telegraph: 'The study shows that you can grow stem cells and make them act like light sensitive cells, a big step forward in helping patients with conditions such as age-related macular degeneration where damage has occurred to the light sensitive cells'.

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