By Patrick Craine

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA, June 4, 2009 ( – Medical researchers at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) have used simple contact lenses cultured with stem cells from a patient’s own eye to return sight to sufferers of corneal disease.

The researchers worked with three patients who were each blind in one eye. The procedure involved scraping less than a millimeter of tissue from the sides of the cornea of each patient’s good eye, culturing the contact lens with the stem cells in that tissue for ten days, and then having the patient wear the contact. Within two weeks the stem cells had begun attaching themselves to the patients’ corneas and replenishing the damaged cells.

Within that short a span, the reported results were remarkable. Two of the patients were legally blind before the procedure, but can now read the big letters on the top of the eye chart. The other patient could read the top few rows of an eye chart, but can now pass the vision test for a driver’s license.

After eighteen months, the improvement in the patients’ vision has remained. “We're quietly excited,” said team leader Nick Di Girolamo, as reported in The Australian. “We don't know yet if [the correction] will remain stable, but if it does it's a wonderful technique.”

“The procedure is totally simple and cheap,” says Dr. Di Girolamo on the UNSW website. “Unlike other techniques, it requires no foreign human or animal products, only the patient’s own serum, and is completely non-invasive.”

Dr. Stephanie Watson, who conducted the procedure, commented further.  “The operation is relatively non-invasive. The patient merely comes into the hospital for a couple of hours to have their eye prepared and the lens put in place, and then they're able to go home,” she said.

Dr. Di Girolamo is hopeful that this procedure could be used to repair other parts of the eye, or even other organs. “We’re very excited about this technique because we think it might be applicable to other major organs of the human body such as the skin, because after all, the skin behaves in a very similar manner to the cornea,” says Dr. Di Girolamo in a video put out on UNSW TV.

This research is another example of the remarkable success of adult stem cells, which have yielded a host of treatments for numerous diseases. Embryonic stem cell research, on the other hand, which tends to grab most of the headlines due to controversy over its ethicality, has yet to produce a viable treatment for a single condition.

See related coverage:

Success Stories with Adult Stem Cells Coming in Almost Too Fast to Track’s Stem Cell Feature