While electronic eyeballs may eventually be a solution to restore sight for the visually impaired, or even to enhance vision for those with normal eyesight, they still are very crude and may have a long way to go. In a classic race between electronics and biotechnology, it appears that biotechnology may have caught up with an incredible solution to restoring vision.
Scientists and the University of New South Wales in Australia cultured corneal stem cells on extended wear contact lenses. They then cleaned the corneas of three patients -- two of whom were legally blind and one with limited vision (they could read the biggest row of the vision chart) -- and had the patient start wearing the lens.
Amazingly, within 10 to 14 days the stem cells had reentered the cornea and began to recolonize it. UNSW’s Dr Nick Di Girolamo describes, "The procedure is totally simple and cheap. Unlike other techniques, it requires no foreign human or animal products, only the patient’s own serum, and is completely non-invasive."
The two legally blind patients can now read the top row of a vision chart, while the vision impaired patient can read enough of the chart to get their driver's license.
The technique still has unknowns. While the patients have regained vision, lasting for over 18 months, there's a chance the gains won't last. While the cornea has no blood supply and gets its oxygen from the air, but it remains to be seen whether the blind patient's tear fluid is sufficient to sustain the new eye tissue in the long term.
Still, Dr. Di Girolamo says the technique looks promising and holds promise even to patients with damage to both eyes. Dr. Girolamo states, "One of our patients had aniridia, a congenital condition affecting both eyes. In that case, instead of taking the stem cells from the other cornea, we took them from another part of the eye altogether – the conjunctiva – which also harbors stem cells."
Corneal diseases are a leading cause of blindness. According to the World Health Organization, damage to this delicate organ causes 1.5 million people to lose sight in one of their eyes every year.
The UNSW team is looking to expand the work to cover other types of ocular damage. Previous research by other teams has shown that stem cells could potentially be used to grow entire eyeballs. They also believe the technique could be applied to regrowing skin and other damaged tissues.