Cells could be harvested from a patient’s own skin.
A team of researchers from the University of Iowa and Veterans Affairs Research Communications, led by Dr. Markus Kuehn, has found that an infusion of stem cells could help treat eyes at risk for glaucoma by restoring proper drainage in fluid-clogged eyes.
According to the Glaucoma Research Foundation, over 120,000 Americans are blind because of glaucoma, and it’s estimated that more than 3 million Americans have the disease, though only half are aware of it. The World Health Organization reports that glaucoma is the second leading cause of blindness in the world.
There’s currently no cure for the disease, but there are treatments — eye drops and laser or traditional surgery — to manage it and prevent the eventual loss of vision. In the future, stem cells may be a new and improved option for patients at risk of glaucoma-caused blindness.
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According to the new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers injected stem cells into the eyes of mice with glaucoma. The cell infusion was found to regenerate the trabecular meshwork, which is a delicate patch of tissue that serves as a drain for the eyes to avoid a fluid buildup.
"We believe that replacement of damaged or lost trabecular meshwork cells with healthy cells can lead to functional restoration following transplantation into glaucoma eyes," said Keuhn, according to the press release.
The team measured the effects in mice for nine weeks after the stem cell treatment, which roughly equals about five or six years in humans.
By reversing the damage to the trabecular meshwork, the authors write that the intraocular pressure (IOP) was significantly reduced and there was an improved eye fluid outflow, sustained for at least 9 weeks.
Plus, the stem cell treatment has a number of advantages. First, the cells can be harvested from the patient’s own skin, which reduces the risk of rejection or infection. Second, the researchers observed that the stem cell injection coaxed the body into producing more of its own cells in the eye, which multiplied the therapeutic effect.
However, the study wasn’t without its limitations. The authors say that it’s possible that the new trabecular meshwork cells generated from the stem cell treatment could eventually succumb to the same mechanisms that caused the fluid buildup in the first place, but further research is needed in that area.
Also, the researchers are confident that the stem cell infusion holds promise for primary open-angle glaucoma (where the pressure in the eye rises slowly), which is the most common form of the disease. However, it will take more research to determine whether other forms of the disease, like normal tension, acute, pigmentary, and trauma-related glaucoma, could also benefit from these encouraging findings.
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