Atlanta — Stem cell technology may soon enter the mainstream as a treatment for ocular disease, says Leo Semes, OD, FAAO, at this year’s annual SECO 2017 conference.
While stem cell therapy is not yet ready for human application, its advancement may soon provide optometrists with new possibilities for regenerative ocular therapy.
Stem cells as treatment for disease
The excitement over stem cells therapy lies in its versatility in application. One promising area of study is limbal stem cell deficiency.
“If limbal stem cells could be harvested, for example, from the patient’s fellow eye, the better eye, grown appropriately in a medium and then transplanted to the cornea, this limbal stem cell deficiency could be overcome,” Dr. Semes says.
This methodology could theoretically be applied to any physical area of ocular deficiency, provided the stem cells were available.
Fortunately, research suggests that these types of stem cells can be collected from various areas of the body—including areas like the oral mucosa. This would allow practitioners to take cells from analogous tissue rather than directly from the tissue needing treatment, then adapt them for specific medical therapies.
“There are a number of means by which appropriately differentiated stem cells can be generated for application to different areas of the body,” Dr. Semes says.
Alternative to embryonic stem cells
Stem cells are known as the “progenitor” cells for each of the body’s tissues. Skin tissue develops from skin stem cells, nervous system tissue develops from neural stem cells, and so on.
Usually, tissue development is limited to its respective type of stem cell. However, there is another form of stem cell with developmental capabilities beyond predetermined tissues: embryonic stem cells.
Embryonic stem cells are the cells from which every other type of stem cell is derived. While embryonic stem cells are not always readily available, certain stem cells (known as induced pluripotent stem cells) can be grown and differentiated to act in the same way—and become specific tissues of medical interest.
For optometrists, these cells could include retinal cells, corneal cells, or nerve tissues that may reverse the damage caused by diseases like glaucoma.