Adult Stem Cells to Grow-Your-Own Corneal Implant

Monday 26 November 2012, 8:48AM

Researchers from Australia and New Zealand are at the forefront of techniques using adult stem cells to grow corneal tissue suitable for corneal transplants.

The cornea is the clear outer lens on the front of the eye. Corneal transplants are required when the cornea is damaged in some way due to trauma or disease. “In Australia and New Zealand, at least 2000 people per year need corneal transplants. However, globally, millions of people go blind each year from corneal disease,” said Prof Charles McGhee, Professor of Ophthalmology, University of Auckland, and Director of the New Zealand National Eye Centre.

“There are three cell layers in the cornea and we can already grow all those cell types, so it won’t be long until we can grow them into a functional biological cornea,” said Prof McGhee. “Whether that’s the whole cornea, or whether it’s specific layers of the cornea – we’ll suit it to the needs of the person.”

“It’s not unreasonable that in 10 years we might have a biological cornea created in the laboratory and transplanted into the patient. That’s a realistic goal for the next decade. And by that we mean we’ll use some kind of a matrix as a substitute for a cornea and then grow a person’s own cells – or donated cells – into that matrix.”

Prof McGhee is one of the key speakers at the Annual Scientific Congress of The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Ophthalmologists – being held in Melbourne this week from 24-28 November.

“In Australia and New Zealand, we’ve already treated 40-50 people using adult stem cell transplants. In some cases it’s appropriate to just transfer individual cell groups we want. The aim is to be able to treat corneal diseases that aren’t treatable with full corneal transplants. It’s a real tipping point at the moment.”

“It is important to note this technique does not use ‘embryo’ stem cells, but adult stem cells. We can take bits of stem cells and re-program the cells to another purpose, to repair parts of the body – in this case, the cornea,” said Prof McGhee.

Other research presented at the RANZCO Congress:

Teach your Children to Never Stare at the Sun
Eye specialists at RANZCO's Congress today will discuss the case of an eleven year old girl who presented to the emergency department with distorted vision (metamorphopsia) and missing areas of her vision (central scotoma) in her right eye after one-eye gazing into the sun while viewing the Transit of Venus (June 2012).

Trainee Ophthalmologist Dr Ye Chen explains the case “Once the diagnosis had been made, nothing could be done, no treatment is available.Despite this, the girl was very fortunate, her vision improved significantly with time.  Over a few months her vision improved to 6/6 ie 20/20—which is of course wonderful.  However, she notices that her vision does not 'feel' normal because there is a small black spot in her central vision.”

Since the solar eclipse on 14 November 2012 three children have presented to the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital after having stared at the Sun.

Senior Ophthalmologist Dr Susan Carden warns “Sun-gazing is extremely dangerous.  The central part of the retina, called the macula, can easily be 'burnt' by the light rays from the Sun.  This cannot be treated.  No-one should ever gaze at the Sun directly with the naked eye.   Sunglasses and smoked glass filters increase the danger. Indirect methods are safest.”

The next important solar event is the Annular Eclipse on the 10 May 2013.  The largest town in Australia to fall under the antumbra will be Tennant Creek, but most of Australia will experience a partial eclipse. “Now is the time for schools and parents to prepare for the event so that children can appreciate this great wonder of science safely.”

Prevalence of Blindness in Children
It was estimated that 0.02% of children in Western Australia are living with a blinding eye condition.  Only half of these children are currently registered with the state provider of support services.

There are very little accurate data available on the prevalence of blindness in children.

“Childhood blindness carries a high financial cost for the community as well as a high individual cost impacting normal motor, language and social development of the child. These factors are all compounded when the child enters the education system and adulthood,” said Dr Julie Crewe, Curtin Health Innovation Research Institute, Curtin University.

A ‘live’ register would help in the planning and provision of appropriate and equitable healthcare resources; evaluating new treatments or targeted rehabilitation programs for children living with a blinding eye condition.

“It would be extremely beneficial if each state had ‘live’ registers of people who are blind and vision impaired.  These registers regularly up-date the data so that if a person’s vision is improved by a new treatment we can evaluate and quantify this benefit”

“We would like to source sufficient funding to develop software specifically designed to capture accurate data and to establish a ‘live’ register of blind and vision impaired children in Western Australia.”