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Trial using donated eye tissue offers stem cell surgery hope

Jan 2019: Researchers have carried out a clinical trial using stem cell-derived tissue to repair the surface of the eye.

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh and the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service carried out a clinical trial using stem cells from donors to create tissue that was transplanted into patients with a condition that causes blindness. This is the first time that stem cells have been used in this way in a randomised clinical trial.

The trial focused on limbal stem cell deficiency (LSCD), which can result from damage to eye from chemicals or heat, or be caused by a disease called aniridia. It leads to scarring and severe vision loss in both eyes as well as chronic pain and redness. LSCD is a significant cause of sight loss – especially in countries where resources and services are limited – but it does not typically respond to standard treatments.

The researchers isolated stem cells from the cornea that were taken from people who had donated their eyes after death. They grew the stem cells into tissue ready to be transplanted. Sixteen patients were split into two groups with both given eye drops and medicines to suppress their immune system to reduce transplant rejection. One group was also given the stem cells.

Patients who had received the stem cells showed significant repair of their eyes’ ocular surface – the outermost layer – over 18 months, which was not seen in those who did not receive the treatment. Both the stem cell group and the control group showed improvements in vision, which researchers say warrants further investigation a larger trial.

Scientists have hailed the step as a landmark for cell-based surgery. They say it shows promise for repairing the eye’s surface, paving the way for similar donor trials to be planned.

The findings from this small study are very promising and show the potential for safe stem cell eye surgery as well as improvements in eye repair.

Our next steps are to better understand how stem cells could promote tissue repair for diseases that are extremely hard to treat and if, and how, they could help to restore vision.

Baljean DhillonProfessor of Clinical Ophthalmology, Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences


The project, published in STEM CELLS Translational Medicine, was funded by UK Stem Cell Foundation, Scottish Enterprise and the Chief Scientist Office, part of Scottish Government Health Directorates.

Related links

Read the article in Stem Cells Translational Medicine: "Allogeneic Ex Vivo Expanded Corneal Epithelial Stem Cell Transplantation: A Randomized Controlled Clinical Trial: Allogeneic Limbal Stem Cell Therapy", doi.org/10.1002/sctm.18-0140

Professor Bal Dhillon's profile

Neurodegenerative conditions research at the Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences

Stem cell biology & regenerative neurology research at the Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences