Scientists have found a way to enhance human corneal tissue regrowth and restore vision with the use of a molecule called ABCB5 which marks the limbal stem cells for easy finding.

The study is a collaboration of Massachusetts Eye and Ear/Schepens Eye Research Institute (Mass. Eye and Ear), Boston Children's Hospital, Brigham and Women's Hospital and the VA Boston Healthcare System. This study could be promising to victims of burns and chemical injuries among others with harmful eye diseases. It is one of the first examples of tissue construction from an adult human stem cell.

Limbal stem cells are in the basal limbal epithelium of the eye also known as limbus. These stem cells help preserve and regenerate corneal tissue and loss of it because of a disease or injury is a leading cause of blindness. Cell or tissue transplants have previously been used to regenerate the cornea but it is still unknown whether or not there really were limbal stem cells in the grafts as outcomes have been inconsistent.

Researchers in this new study used antibodies to detect ABCB5 and pinpointed the stem cells found in the tissue of dead human donors. They used these to regrow fully functional and anatomically correct human corneas in rats. However, they had a difficult time finding the stem cells. They were able to tag the cells with fluorescent molecular flags. They used this technique to identify LSCs on human corneas instantly.

"The corneal tissue is a tissue that has inherent turnover capacity; the cells are being shed and being replaced continuously," Boston Children's Hospital doctor and lead researcher Markus Frank said. "This capacity to restore is produced by the limbal stem cell population, and while it's known that such cells exist, the identity and their exact molecular markers have not been known."

The new method may someday help burn and chemical injury victims restore their sight. Scientists were able to establish a molecularly defined cell population that they can get from donor tissue. These cells can self-regenerate. If driven forward and this knowledge is applied to a clinical setting, a therapy for patients who need to reconstruct their corneas can be developed.

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