Magazine article Science News

Tapping an Unlikely Source: Scientists Use Mouth Membrane to Construct Corneal-Surface Transplants

Magazine article Science News

Tapping an Unlikely Source: Scientists Use Mouth Membrane to Construct Corneal-Surface Transplants

Article excerpt

Japanese researchers have repaired the corneas in four people whose vision had been nearly wiped out by eye disease. But rather than transplant corneal tissue, the scientists fashioned a new outer layer for the damaged corneas from bits of tissue taken from each patient's own mouth. More than a year later, the transplants are providing much enhanced sight for the patients.

Cornea replacement is the foremost success story of the transplant era, thanks largely to the tissue's characteristics. Being transparent, the cornea lacks blood cells and so doesn't prompt immune rejection. Still, cornea transplants from dead donors have thrived only when a recipient has a reserve of corneal stem cells, which reside where the cornea meets the white of the eye.

Normally, these cells continuously renew a clear layer over the rest of the cornea--a shield over a shield. While inadequate to rebuild a damaged cornea from scratch, lingering corneal stem cells can often team with a transplanted cornea to maintain the outer layer and preserve sight.

However, a person whose outer corneal layer is severely damaged by heat, chemicals, or certain diseases may have no stem cells in reserve. In these patients, corneal transplants typically fail. To help this group, ophthalmologist Kohji Nishida of Osaka University Medical School and his colleagues turned to a stem cell that forms the membrane that lines the mouth.

The researchers collected tiny sections of membrane from inside the cheeks of four people who had extensive damage in both eyes from complications of a rare ailment called Stevens-Johnson syndrome. …

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