Regenerating corneas for transplant

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C.— Researchers inside the Piedmont Triad Research Park think they’ve come up with a way to regenerate the cells of a cornea and engineer more of the cells needed for corneal transplants. 

The procedure could mean the donation of eyes from one donor could help multiple people regain sight.

Ocular Systems Incorporated, Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine and the North Carolina Eye Bank are partnering on the new venture.

While it’s not been tested in humans yet, the idea is to take Endothelial Cells from a layer of the human cornea and engineer or grow multiple replacement corneas.

Jerry Barker, President of Ocular Systems says, “in the last 100 years you have to have your whole cornea taken off and have the whole cornea transplanted in place of it. What we do now is just transplant certain cell layers.”

Barker says his company’s expertise in preparing cell layers for transplantation led them to begin studying this idea more than 4 years ago because they know the supply of healthy corneas does not meet the worldwide demand.

“Right now you get corneas from one donor, you get two corneas from one donor and you can only give those to two patients.  Our idea is why can’t you take those same two corneas from one patient but expand those cells out to give them to multiple patients.”
   
While details of the procedure are still being researched, doctors with Wake Forest’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine say they know the cells can be grown.

Since a cornea can’t heal itself when it becomes damaged or diseased it gets cloudy. 

The only way to repair it is add new cells.

“We are able to transplant these cells and it will actually clear the cornea up and allow it to be more transparent,” says Barker.

While there are many trials, tests and additional studies to go before asking the F.D.A. for human trials Ocular Systems has faith this new procedure could increase the supply of healthy, top notch cells for transplant.

Barker says, “not all corneas are the same cause they come from different donors the younger ones more pristine so if we could take those more pristine corneas and grow just those cells we could give it to those patients.”

According to the Eye Bank Association of America in 2011 more than 46,000 people in the