Regenerative Medicine in Ophthalmology
Among the thousands of people in the world who need an organ transplant, only a small portion receive the treatment they need. The demand for organ donors has always surpassed the supply, the only hope to solve this issue being the field of regenerative medicine. Regenerative medicine deals with the healing or repairing of defective parts of the body, in which it won’t be necessary to conduct a transplant of any sort. Though this branch of medicine is fairly new, there have been some breakthroughs in regenerative biotechnology, especially in the field of ophthalmology.
The cornea, being the outer layer of the eye, is made up of epithelial tissue that is constantly maintained by the stem cells that are located near the limbus, the marginal area, the area surrounding the cornea. When the cornea suffers from severe infections or damage from internal or external forces, the limbus is unable to replenish the cornea’s epithelial cells, resulting in poor vision. Though a procedure called “advanced tissue transplant surgery” solves this issue, scientists have found that a “limbal stem cell replacement” has the potential to be much safer, avoiding surgery as a whole. Scientists are also trying to discover ways to produce stem cells from the patient’s skin or blood, reducing the risk of immune rejection if cells are taken from a cell donor.
As the cornea deals with the eye’s surface, the optic nerve is responsible for functions found at the back of the eye. It is what sends the electrical pulses in the eye to the brain to produce an image. In front of the optic nerve are the retinal ganglion cells, which carry the visual information to the optic nerve. Diseases like glaucoma produce excess fluid within the eye that applies pressure to the optic nerve, resulting in deteriorated vision and even blindness. This means that the retinal ganglion cells (a type of neuron located in the retina) are also damaged, in which the most promising way to resolve this issue is to integrate healthy versions of those cells, derived from stem cells, into the retina. The main challenge then is for the repaired cells to form connections with the brain again. Even so, overcoming this challenge will be a great step towards creating other regenerative procedures for the entirety of healthcare.
Though commercialized use of regenerative biotechnologies is far from being adapted into society, these breakthroughs certainly prove that the idea of curing blindness and diseases that were thought to be “untreatable” are completely possible. By continuing to make advancements, a time will finally come where life-changing treatments will be accessible to all.