Scientists have found a possible treatment for the most common form of blindness using special stem cells found on the front surface of the eye.
Research at the University of Southampton, published in the online journal PLOS ONE, showed that stem cells can be gathered from the corneal limbus.
This part of the eye is a narrow gap between the transparent cornea and white sclera.
“These cells are readily accessible, and they have surprising plasticity”
Under the correct conditions, these cells could be directed to behave like the cells needed to see light – photoreceptor cells.
The loss of photoreceptor cells causes irreversible blindness and researchers hope this discovery could lead to new treatments for conditions such as age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in the developed world which affects around one in three people in the UK by the age of 75.
Professor Andrew Lotery, of the University of Southampton and a consultant ophthalmologist at Southampton General Hospital, said: “These cells are readily accessible, and they have surprising plasticity, 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,” he said.
“More research is now needed to develop this approach before these cells are used in patients.”
He added that these stem cells exist in aged human eyes and can be cultured even from the corneal limbus of 97-year-olds.
The research was funded by the National Eye Research Centre (NERC), Rosetrees Trust, TFC Frost Charity and the Gift of Sight Appeal.