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Researchers Restore Vision by 'Growing' Eye Cells

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As the researchers describe in the July issue of the journal Cornea, the cells were then grown in a lab dish. The new cornea is then transplanted onto the damaged cornea of the patient.

Ten of the 14 patients had successful results, defined as complete recovering of the corneal surface, stable or improved vision, and no recurrence of disease. One patient had vision improve from the ability to only count fingers before the transplant to 20/30 after; and a second went from counting fingers to 20/60. Both were considered success stories.

"The real exciting part of this is that ... other mucous membranes such as bladder, gut, lung, vagina, or rectum, probably, can be grown in the laboratory to be retransplanted into patients who have either traumatic or [disease] damage," says Schwab in an interview with WebMD.

In another study published in the July 12 issue of TheNew England Journal of Medicine, Ray Jui-Fang Tsai, MD and colleagues from Taiwan report on the use of a similar technique in six patients with severe corneal disease.

All six damaged eyes had complete recovering of the surface within two to four days, and by one month there was significant improvement of clarity of the cornea, the authors write. The average visual perception in five of the six eyes improved from 20/112 (severely impaired) before surgery to 20/45 (mildly impaired) after transplant. The sixth patient, who had total clouding of the cornea due to a chemical burn, had perception of 20/200 in the treated eye 15 months after the graft.

And now, according to the Associated Press, the number of successful transplants done by the researchers from Taiwan has increased to 60 out of 90 attempts.

"This is building on what a lot of us have been working on, and that's stem cell transplantation for rehabilitation of severely injured eyes; they've just taken it to another level," Edward J. Holland, MD, who was not involved in the studies, tells WebMD. "Potentially we can minimize risk to the donor, and also potentially bank stem cells that we could use at another time in the case of rejection or inflammation." Holland is professor of ophthalmology at the University of Cincinnati and director of cornea at the Cincinnati Eye Institute.

"The exciting part is that we know this can be done; the frustrating part is that we don't have all the answers," Schwab tells WebMD. He adds more improvements need to be made to the procedure.

Things still aren't perfect for Beebe either. "I was hoping that the stem cells would help the cornea more, and it would get better, and better, and better," he tells WebMD. "But it's been stable, and that's great, because that was my problem: [before the surgery] it was getting worse and worse and worse."

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