Advances in regenerative medicine are producing a lot of hope for people who need treatment for debilitating, and sometimes life-threatening, conditions. A case in point is a new procedure just given provisional approval in Japan. The procedure seeks to use reprogrammed stem cells to treat disease and injury to the corneas.

Though the Japanese committee that gave its provisional approval has been widely criticized around the world, the fact remains that doctors can take the next step in developing their treatment. All they are waiting on now is final government approval to begin clinical trials with patients suffering from corneal blindness.

About Corneal Blindness

Corneal blindness is a condition in which a person is made either partially or totally blind as a result of injury or disease to the extremely sensitive cornea. The cornea is the transparent, outer layer of tissue that protects the eyeball. It can be damaged by all sorts of things ranging from household accidents to inflammatory diseases.

According to the World Health Organization, corneal blindness is the fourth leading cause of blindness worldwide. It ranks only behind cataracts, glaucoma, and macular degeneration. With so many people suffering from the condition – more than 5 million according to the WHO – the fact that researchers may have a cure in stem cells is exciting news.

The most successful treatment for corneal blindness right now is transplant surgery. Healthy corneas donated by deceased individuals are used to replace the diseased or damaged corneas of the patient. The surgery works well for the most part, but there is always the risk of rejection and other complications. Moreover, the supply of healthy tissue is limited.

The Proposed Treatment

As for the Japanese researchers, they have developed a procedure whereby they use sheets of tissue grown from pluripotent stem cells. However, these are not random cells. They are induced pluripotent cells that have been created specifically for this purpose.

Researchers have figured out how to reprogram the cells so that they take on the characteristics of embryonic stem cells capable of differentiating into multiple kinds of tissue. The procedure calls for laying the sheets on top of the patient’s corneas so as to allow the pluripotent stem cells to do what they do.

Animal studies have already demonstrated that the procedure can work. Researchers say that their animal subjects have experienced both improved and completely restored vision. Time will tell if the procedure produces the same results in humans.

The researchers are now waiting on final approval from Japan’s health ministry. They expect to have that approval soon, and plans are in place to begin treating four patients by early summer 2019. Each patient will receive the treatment and then be monitored for a year. If the treatment proves successful, the next step would be seeking permission for a larger scale study.

A Great Time to Be in Regenerative Medicine

Apex Biologix, a technology company that supplies centrifuges and stem cell kits to doctors and clinics, says that research projects like the one going on in Japan are what make it so exciting to be involved in regenerative medicine. Not only are researchers around the world working on some very promising projects, but doctors are improving lives right now by offering a limited number of regenerative medicine treatments in their own practices.

Now is certainly an exciting time to be involved in regenerative medicine. It is also a time of hope for people suffering from a wide range of medical conditions. The more we learn about regenerative medicine, the more we are coming to understand the healing power of stem cells.