Researchers have successfully regrown anatomically-correct corneas for the first time using adult human stem cells.
A team from the Massachusetts Eye and Ear/Schepens Eye Research Institute, Boston Children's Hospital, Brigham and Women's Hospital and the VA Boston Healthcare System used a molecule known as ABCB5 to identify the location of rare limbal stem cells, which help maintain and regenerate corneal tissue.
Degeneration of these cells due to injury or disease can cause blindness, and while cell transplants have been used to aid in regeneration, outcomes are often inconsistent.
"Limbal stem cells are very rare, and successful transplants are dependent on these rare cells," said physician and co- author Bruce Ksander.
Researchers used the cells found in tissue from deceased donors to regrow fully functional human corneas in mice.
"This finding will now make it much easier to restore the corneal surface," Dr Ksander said.
"It's a very good example of basic research moving quickly to a translational application."
They also found that mice lacking the functional ABCB5 gene lost limbal stem cells and their corneas healed poorly after injury.
"The mouse model allowed us for the first time to understand the role of ABCB5 in normal development, and should be very important to the stem cell field in general," said VA Boston Healthcare System and Women's Hospital researcher and co-author Dr Natasha Frank.
General Manager NSW Client Services at Vision Australia Michael Simpson told ninemsn there's very little repair work that can be done to a damaged eye when it comes to injury or disease.
He also said that while cornea transplants were already available to people suffering from vision loss, the procedure had inconsistent results and relied on there being a large and ongoing source of donors.
"Aside from increasing availability, the growth of new corneas from human stem cells would significantly decrease the rejection rate in those transplants, meaning that less people would need ongoing therapy and vision substitution skills" he said.
"We welcome any medical intervention that restores vision to a level that encourages independence, which means we can more fully devote our resources to those for whom no such intervention is available."
According to statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the daily lives of around 350 thousand Australians are impacted by blindness or vision impairment.
Generally speaking, the research is also one of the first-known examples of human tissue construction from adult-derived human stem cells.