British researchers plan to test a new technique in India to treat damaged cornea, which is one of the major causes of blindness in the world.
The technique designed by engineers at the University of Sheffield delivers stem cell therapy to the eye, which is believed to help the natural repair of eyes damaged by accident or disease. This could help millions of people across the world retain, or even regain, their eyesight.
Researchers describe a new method for producing membranes to help in the grafting of stem cells onto the eye, mimicking structural features of the eye itself.
Using a combination of techniques known as microstereolithography and electrospinning, researchers are able to make a disc of biodegradable material that can be fixed over the cornea. The disc is loaded with stem cells, which then multiply, allowing the body to heal the eye naturally.
"The disc has an outer ring containing pockets, into which, stem cells taken from the patient's healthy eye can be placed," said Dr Ilida Ortega Asencio.
"The material across the centre of the disc is thinner than the ring, so it will biodegrade more quickly allowing the stem cells to proliferate across the surface of the eye to repair the cornea," Asencio said.
A key feature of the disc is that it contains niches or pockets to house and protect the stem cells, mirroring niches found around the rim of a healthy cornea.
Standard treatments for corneal blindness are corneal transplants or grafting stem cells onto the eye using donor human amniotic membrane as a temporary carrier to deliver these cells to the eye.
"Laboratory tests have shown that the membranes will support cell growth, so the next stage is to try this on patients in India, working with our colleagues in the L.V. Prasad Eye Institute in Hyderabad," says Professor Sheila MacNeil.
"One advantage of our design is that we have made the disc from materials already in use as biodegradable sutures in the eye so we know they won't cause a problem in the body. This means that, subject to the necessary safety studies and approval from Indian Regulatory Authorities, we should be able to move to early stage clinical trials fairly quickly," she said.