New hope has been offered to the blind as scientists discover special stem cells within the human eye, which could be altered to detect light.
University of Southampton researchers have discovered a well of stem cells in a part of the eye called the corneal limbus, and have shown that these cells can be changed into photo-receptor cells with the ability to react to light.
Scientists hope that the implantation of the cultured stem cells into damaged eyes could reverse blindness.
This could be a potential cure for the thousands of people suffering from retinitis pigmentosa or macular degeneration, both of which are caused by the loss of photo-receptor cells within the eyes.
Researchers were surprised to discover that the cells existed in a 97-year-old’s eyes as this opens up the door to the treatment being effective for the elderly.
Professor Andrew Lotery of the University of Southampton and a consultant ophthalmologist at Southampton General Hospital acted as the leader of the study and said that the cells are readily accessible and its plasticity makes it an attractive resource for future therapies. He said it would help to avoid rejection or contamination issues as the cells taken from the eye will be returned to the same patient.
He added that more research is required to develop the technique prior to the use of the cells in patients.
The loss of photo-receptor results in irreversible blindness.
About 513000 people suffer from age related macular degeneration and this figure is due to increase by at least one-third over the next ten years.
Around two million people in the UK live with loss of sight. Predictions state that by 2020, this number will reach 2250000 and by 2050, the number will be almost 4000000.
Image Credit: Richard Masoner