Hydrogels have been shown to restore eyesight in blind mice, and now, researchers want to know if the material could be used to reverse blindness in human beings. The gel-like material seems to assist in the transportation of stem cells and encourages the healing process in eyes as well as in the brains of patients.

Hydrogels seem to prolong the lifespan of certain cells and assist them in integrating into tissues. Not only could they help reverse the effects of some forms of blindness, they also help repair brain damage following a stroke, researchers report.

University of Toronto researchers conducted a pair of experiments with the specially-engineered biomaterial. The team wrapped stem cells in the hydrogel, boosting their healing abilities, before implanting the material into the mice.

Stem cells have the ability to develop into any type of cell in the body, including heart tissue, skin or eyes. This property makes them the subject of intense research by investigators looking for new treatment methods for a variety of diseases and ailments. However, these cells are easy to grow in laboratory conditions, but they often die after being transplanted into patients or they fail to integrate in bodies.

Hydrogels act as a form of cushioning for the stem cells, protecting them during transport as they head toward desired targets within bodies.

"This study goes one step further, showing that the hydrogels do more than just hold stem cells together; they directly promote stem cell survival and integration. This brings stem-cell based therapy closer to reality," Molly Shoichet of the University of Toronto said.

Photoreceptors grown from stem cells were covered in hydrogels and placed within the eyes of mice without vision. The experiment resulted in the partial restoration of blindness in the rodents as the cells developed into healthy copies of the light-detecting structures.

In the syringe, hydrogels have the viscosity of water, easily carrying stem cells. However, once it is inside the body, the substance stiffens, protecting stems cells as they travel to a given area. Hydrogels also seem to enrich these unique cells, increasing their lifespan.

Two common forms of vision problems, macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa, are the result of the loss of operational photoreceptors in the retina of the eye. These conditions may, one day, be treated utilizing this newly-developed process.

Hydrogels could be used not just to restore blindness and repair brains after strokes, but the injectable biomaterial may also be used for a wide range of other medical treatments involving stem cells. Potential treatments for human patients will not be available in the near future, but the method could make stem cell treatments easier, providing significant benefits for several maladies.

Research into the effect of hydrogels in repairing eye and brain damage was profiled in the journal Stem Cell Reports.

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