Your corneas are a clear and sensitive organ covering the front of your eyes. They protect some of the more fragile parts of your eyes and bend light as it enters your eye to give you clear vision.
Corneas are crucial to your vision. Unfortunately, they’re also quite delicate and vulnerable. Almost anything could damage your corneas, from a speck of dirt or drop of cleaning product to chronically dry eyes; and an injured cornea can really mess with your vision.
The good news is that corneal damage doesn’t have to be permanent anymore. Through ethically-sourced human stem cells, we can actually undo some damage and repair or regenerate cells. This treatment is genuinely one of the most exciting ophthalmological advancements of the last few years.
It’s called stem cell therapy, and it could help restore your vision.
What Are Stem Cells?
Stem cells are special cells that occur naturally in the human body. These cells have the unique ability to transform into different types of cells. They’re found in many of your tissues, where they work something like an on-call repair system.
Many people believe all stem cell therapies use embryonic stem cells (taken from human embryos) or cord blood stem cells (taken from the umbilical cord of newborn babies). People have donated these sorts of stem cells before with full medical consent. However, most types of stem cell therapy today are performed with iPS (induced pluripotent stem cells) or amniotic membrane stem cells.
iPS cells are grown in a lab and engineered to be reprogrammable like embryonic stem cells. They typically start out as tissue-specific cells, which are then converted for research, therapeutic, or treatment purposes.
Amniotic membrane cells are taken from the placenta after a child is born with informed parental consent. These cells are particularly effective because they are very unlikely to trigger any sort of immune response and they’re highly versatile; morphing to meet whatever need they find.
Personally, I use amniotic membrane cells when treating my patients’ corneas with stem cell therapy.
Is Stem Cell Treatment Safe?
As with any type of medicine, there is always the potential that treatment may not go as planned. However, experts say that the amniotic membrane provides several benefits that other stem cell sources may not offer. The membrane is also harvested under very specific circumstances.
For a mother to donate amniotic membrane they must:
- Give informed consent
- Deliver via c-section in a sterile environment
- Test negative for Hepatitis B & C, HIV, and several other diseases
- Demonstrate a lack of fetal abnormalities
- Demonstrate a lack of genetic disease
How Does Corneal Stem Cell Therapy Work?
It’s not uncommon for patients to sustain some pretty serious corneal damage. Accidents like chemical contact or just getting poked in the eye can injure your corneas and damage the cells. Even if nothing significant happens to your eyes, you can still injure your corneas. For example, dry eye can cause corneal ulcers.
When we evaluate your corneal health, we instill a special dye onto your corneas. The dye indicates which areas of your corneas are damaged by staining them. If we see a high level of staining, it means your corneas are quite severely damaged. This type of damage may not heal properly or could result in scarring, which hinders your vision. To restore your sight, you have to restore the cells. That’s where stem cell therapy comes in.
The Treatment Process
We take a small dehydrated piece of amniotic membrane, placing it on the damaged area of your cornea and holding it in place with a special bandage contact lens. The bandage is clear and comfortable, although you may see some blurriness due to the patch of membrane.
You’ll wear this bandage for 5 days or so, then return to the office to have the bandage removed. The membrane will have dissolved into the surface of your eye.
At the Cellular Level
Your cells produce new cells by dividing. Normal corneal cells make more corneal cells when they divide. But when stem cells are applied to the cornea, they have the potential to make more stem cells, or corneal cells. The new corneal cells replace the injured or damaged cells, restoring the structure of your cornea.
The Future is Bright With Stem Cell Therapy
While many people consider stem cell therapy to be a futuristic treatment from a science fiction movie, it is a safe, effective, viable, and ethical way to replace damaged cells. While amniotic membrane treatments are relatively uncommon among optometric practices, I fully expect that other optometrists will join us and provide this exceptional service within the next few years.