Researchers affiliated with Harvard University have developed a way to regrow human corneas, which could tackle the leading cause of blindness.

Photo Credit: Kira Lathrop, Bruce Ksander, Markus Frank, and Natasha Frank

Photo Credit: Kira Lathrop, Bruce Ksander, Markus Frank, and Natasha Frank

A team of Harvard-affiliated researchers from Massachusetts Eye and Ear/Schepens Eye Research Institute, Boston Children's Hospital, Brigham and Women's Hospital, and the VA Boston Healthcare System have found a way to enhance regrowth of human corneal tissue with a molecule that acts as a marker for limbal stem cells. The process could help to restore vision. 

Limbal stem cells are in the eye's basal limbal epithelium, and they help to maintain and regenerate corneal tissue. An injury or disease could lead to a loss of these cells, which would result in a loss of vision. Previously, tissue or cell transplants were used to encourage cornea regeneration, but doctors were left with a few unknowns. For example, they didn't know if there were any actual limbal stem cells in the grafts or, if there are there, how many are present.

In their study, the research team used antibodies to detect the marker molecule, called ABCB5. This helped them to find stem cells in the tissue of deceased humans and were used to regrow human corneas in mice, which were fully functional and anatomically correct.

“Limbal stem cells are very rare, and successful transplants are dependent on these rare cells,” said Bruce Ksander of Mass. Eye and Ear, co-lead author on the study. “This finding will now make it much easier to restore the corneal surface. It’s a very good example of basic research moving quickly to a translational application.”

Markus Frank, of Boston Children's Hospital and co-senior investigator on the study, is currently working with the biopharmaceutical industry to develop a ABCB5 clinical-grade antibody.

“A single lab cannot do a study like this,” said Natasha Frank of VA Boston Healthcare System and the study's co-senior investor. “It integrates genetics, knockout mice, antibodies, transplantation — a lot of technical expertise that we were lucky came together in a very nice way.”

Photo Credit: Kira Lathrop, Bruce Ksander, Markus Frank, and Natasha Frank

Photo Credit: Kira Lathrop, Bruce Ksander, Markus Frank, and Natasha Frank