New stem cell surgery offers hope to patients with corneal blindness

The new clinical trial set to begin this month is funded jointly by the UK Stem Cell Foundation and Scottish Enterprise in partnership with the Chief Scientist Office.

Experts are confident they can restore sight by using innovative stem cell transplantation. For the first time, they will carry out a clinical trial of around 20 patients before potentially offering relief to the millions of people around the world who suffer from the pain and sight loss associated with corneal blindness.

The surgical treatment involves the transplantation of limbal stem cells to replace diseased cells in the eye of a patient with chronic corneal disease.

The cells are removed from a deceased donor and grown or cultivated in a controlled environment before being transplanted onto the surface of the cornea.

Headed by Prof Bal Dhillon at the Princess Alexandra Eye Pavilion in Edinburgh, and working with colleagues Dr Ramaesh at Gartnavel General Hospital in Glasgow and Dr Agrawal at the Princess Alexandra Eye Pavilion, the collaborative study will also involve the laboratories at the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service led by Prof Marc Turner.

Prof Bal Dhillon, consultant ophthalmic surgeon, NHS Lothian, said:


“This study is the first of its kind in Scotland and it is exciting to be involved in such groundbreaking work.
“Piloting the use of limbal stem cell transplantation is a great landmark in the treatment of patients suffering from corneal blindness.”
The study will explore the use of transplanted limbal stem cells on amniotic membrane as a technique for replenishing the stem cell population and repairing the corneal surface.
It will also look at the use of immunosuppressant drugs to help reduce the risk of the patient’s immune system rejecting the transplanted cells.
The aim of the study will be to establish a safe transplantation strategy that will constitute a major improvement in patient care.


UKSCF Trustee, Jon Moulton, said:
“Vision loss is a serious condition that dramatically affects the lives of millions of people around the world. Over 160 million people are affected by the condition globally, with 300,000 people registered blind or visually impaired in the UK alone. The loss of independence resulting from blindness and visual impairment can have devastating consequences for individuals and their families. It is a particular problem for older people where an estimated 80% of corneal disease occurs. As the UKSCF, it is our remit is to support high quality translational projects such as this whose aim is the rapid and safe progression towards clinical application. Innovative pilot studies like this offer real hope to people suffering from this chronic condition.”


David Caughey, Director of Industries, Innovation and Commercialisation at Scottish Enterprise said
“Scotland continues to be one of Europe’s leading locations for life sciences research and development. This is just one of the many investments the public sector in Scotland has made in stem cells demonstrating our commitment to developing this area of science to improve the health and wealth of the people of Scotland.”