By KAT LONG, Wall Street Journal-Mar 9, 2016.
Two studies offer encouraging results for possible alternative to risky surgical implants.
The best treatment options for cataracts and corneal blindness today involve possibly risky surgical implants, but new research may point to the growing potential for less-invasive stem-cell therapies.
An international team of scientists, led by researchers at the University of California San Diego, successfully treated cataracts in 12 human infants by employing their stem cells to heal the eye, according to a paper published online on Wednesday in the scientific journal Nature.
In a separate study also published in Nature, researchers from Japan and the U.K. treated corneal blindness in six rabbits with lab-grown stem cells, which they said may one day reduce the need for corneal transplants with donated tissues.
Successful results in animals often can’t be replicated in humans, but researchers nonetheless said they found both studies encouraging. James Tsai, president of the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai, who wasn’t involved with the two studies, said the techniques illustrated the possibilities for stem-cell therapies for which physicians have been hoping. “This is something that we always thought was possible,” he said.
More than 20 million people around the world suffer from cataracts, which cloud the eye’s lens, a transparent structure that focuses light on the retina.
Surgery to insert artificial replacement lenses can help restore sight. But the procedure can also damage cells around the insertion site, said Kang Zhang, professor of ophthalmology and chief of ophthalmic genetics at UC San Diego, who helped lead the first study.
Most cataract sufferers are elderly adults, but Dr. Zhang and his colleagues conducted their study in 12 human infants born with congenital cataracts, whose developing eyes didn’t take well to artificial replacement lenses.
The researchers made a relatively small incision in the infants’ eyes and removed the damaged lenses, which allowed stem cells present in the infants’ eyes to generate a new lens. The team had previously found stem cells, called LECs, expressed certain genes that could let them develop into lens-like cells.