What groundbreaking research on regrowing human corneal tissue means for the future of corrective eye surgery procedures


It is not very often that the public hears about research from the bench being successfully translated to bedside treatment. New, groundbreaking research in Boston by Massachusetts Eye and Ear/Schepens Eye Research Institute (Mass. Eye and Ear), Boston Children’s Hospital, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the VA Boston Healthcare System, has detailed a method of re-growing human corneal tissue from adult stem cells, showing great promise for the future of corrective eye procedures.

The research, published in the scientific journal Nature, found a molecular marker, known as ABCB5, for the group of evasive stem cells, known as limbal stem cells, that are required to maintain and regenerate corneal cells. The loss of corneal cells occurs due to injury to the eye, or due to a variety of corneal diseases, both leading causes of blindness in the United States (U.S.).

The research team isolated limbal stem cells in deceased donor samples using antibodies to detect ABCB5, and were able to successfully culture the stem cells into fully functional, anatomically correct human corneas in mice. This success is the first known case of fully functional human tissue constructed from adult stem cells.

 “This finding will now make it much easier to restore the corneal surface. It’s a very good example of basic research moving quickly to a translational application,” said Dr Bruce Ksander, co-lead author on the study.

Traditional treatments for corneal injuries and diseases in the past, have included tissue or cell transplants from donors to help the recipient regenerate their cornea. Corneal regeneration by this method has helped a number of patients by improving sight, relieving pain and treating severe damage and infection to the eye. In these cases, the presence of limbal stem cells in the graft was unknown, and the outcomes were inconsistent.

Dr. Markus Frank of the Boston Children’s Hospital, where ABCB5 was initially discovered, is currently working in conjunction with the biopharmaceutical industry to develop a clinical-grade, U.S. regulation-approved antibody for ABCB5. Once approved, the antibody will be used to test the viability of growing and implanting human corneas from patients’ own cells in clinical trials. The stem cell research shows incredible promise, and especially so in the face of a shortage of corneal donors.