Laboratory-grown corneas offer hope to thousands

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The Independent Online
Doctors said yesterday they had repaired the damaged eyes of two patients using cornea tissue grown in the laboratory. The breakthrough offers new hope to thousands of people who were blinded or had their sight impaired by injury or disease and at present cannot expect their sight to be restored.

A team in Italy took tiny pieces of tissue from the edge of the cornea and grew cells from them in laboratory dishes until they formed sheets large enough to graft on to the damaged areas. Their patients were two men who were severely injured at work by chemical burns that had destroyed their corneas.

Writing in the Lancet, the researchers, led by Dr Michele De Luca, of the Istituto Dermopatico dell'Immacolata in Rome, said that two years after having the grafts, the lab-grown cells were functioning normally in both men and there was a "striking improvement in patients' comfort and visual acuity".

The tissue used came from an area called the limbus which harbours special "stem" cells capable of multiplying into unlimited numbers of corneal cells. Only a small number of stem cells from an undamaged part of the eye are needed to produce new tissue.