Scientists successfully grow new human corneas from adult stem cells

Things are looking up for some forms of blindness. According to a report published in this week’s issue of the journal Nature, the first functional tissue created from adult stem cells has been created.

Harvard University researchers used a molecular marker probe to find a specific kind of adult stem cells called limbal cells in tissues collected from deceased donors. They used antibodies generated against a specific protein found on limbal cells called ABCB5. When present, ABCB5-positive limbal cells bind up the antibody and allow the scientists to selectively collect them out from a mixed population of cells. Then the cells were used to grow new human corneas in mice.

The limbal cells reside within a deep layer of the human cornea and produce new cells to replace older, deteriorating cells in intact, healthy corneas. Injury to a cornea that destroys the limbus layer that contains these cells results in blindness because the cornea cannot be renewed.

“Limbal stem cells are very rare, and successful transplants are dependent on these rare cells,” said Bruce Ksander, co-lead author on the report, in a statement. “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.”