Stem Cells: Alternative To Corneal Transplants?


Dr. Sayan Basu, a leading researcher and eye surgeon from the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine (Pitt), is applying his own stem cell lab research findings in a study involving patients in India with corneal damage. This represents a fast-paced scenario of animal research quickly pivoting to human research.1

Hard at Work to Repair Eye Damage

Basu and his fellow researchers at Pitt are studying a personalized method of preventing corneal scarring without the need for surgery.2 Using mesenchymal stem cells from the human limbus (the area between the cornea or transparent front part of the eye, and the sclera, the white of the eye), Basu and his colleagues confirmed in the lab the cells’ ability to differentiate into specialized corneal cells called keratocytes (or fibroblasts) that could potentially be used to repair eye damage.These cells, called limbal biopsy-derived stromal cells (LBSCs), were then applied to the surface of the eye in mice with damaged corneas.2  The LBSCs were not only able to regenerate the damaged tissue in the mice, but the repaired tissue resembled their own native tissue.2

Personalized Treatment Options for Scarred Corneal Tissue

Since LBSCs can be obtained directly from patients2, this discovery led Basu to quickly apply the approach to study a group of patients in India with scarred corneal tissue1, a major cause of corneal blindness worldwide.2 Until now, corneal transplants have been the main treatment to repair damaged and diseased corneas, but that often means a long wait because donor corneas are scarce.2 Once a donor cornea becomes available, surgery is necessary to remove the patient’s damaged cornea and replace it with the healthy one. This is followed by long-term post-surgery treatment including follow-up care, medications, and a small chance that the donor cornea will be rejected by the patient.1 Many studies are focused on cell therapy based approaches for vision loss and Basu’s new procedure, if proven safe and effective in humans, could avoid the complicated corneal transplant procedure by using cells from the patient’s own eyes to treat the corneal scars causing their blindness.1,2 

A current pilot study has enrolled ten patients with corneal scarring.1 Results are expected to be available in the spring of 2016.1


1.    David Templeton. “Pitt researcher uses stem cells from the eye to repair damaged corneas.” Pittsburg Post-Gazette, 13 January 2015. Accessed November 28, 2015.

2. Sayan Basu et al. Human limbal biopsy–derived stromal stem cells prevent corneal scarring. Science Translational Medicine. 6, 266 (2014). Accessed November 28, 2015.

One thought on “Stem Cells: Alternative To Corneal Transplants?

  1. Exciting news. I have had an eye disease in my right eye since 1970 and the only cure is a corneal transplant. I know the dangers and I do not want to do it unless absolutely necessary.

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