Corneal eye disease is the fourth most common cause of blindness in the world and it affects more than 10 million people worldwide. An unhealthy cornea affects vision by scattering or distorting light and causing glare and blurred vision. The most widely used treatment for this condition is cornea transplantation (or keratoplasty) where the diseased or scarred corneal tissue is replaced with healthy tissue from an organ donor. Although these procedures have been performed for over 100 years, unfortunately about 30% of transplants are unsuccessful due to rejection by the patient’s own immune system.
Researchers, led by Dr Thomas Ritter from NUI Galway’s Regenerative Medicine Institute (REMEDI), showed in a model system that transplant rejection rates could be reduced to as low as 10% by administering a certain type of stem cell called a mesenchymal stem cell (MSC). MSCs can be readily obtained and grown from the bone marrow of adult donors.
Dr Ritter explained: “In recent years, our Immunology research programme at REMEDI has focused at a basic level on understanding the immune response to transplanted tissues such as the cornea as well as on the immune modulating effects of stromal stem cells. It is hoped this work will lead to much improved outcomes for the 100,000 people worldwide who undergo cornea transplant procedures each year.”
Previous research from the team at REMEDI which showed that these cells have certain properties which can modulate the immune system led them to study their usefulness in combating cornea transplant rejection. Dr Oliver Treacy, the lead scientist on the team at NUI Galway, showed that the MSCs release chemicals capable of adjusting the immune system balance in the body. This led to an increase in cells called regulatory T-cells, which dampen down inflammation, and a decrease in the number of natural killer cells, key players in the rejection process.
Mr Gerry Fahy, Consultant Ophthalmologist at Galway University Hospital, who was involved in the study said: “Corneal transplant rejection can result in blindness and is not uncommon in high risk patients. This important research presents a potentially new avenue of treatment to prevent transplant rejection and save vision in this vulnerable group of patients.”
In a follow-up €6 million study now underway, the research team from REMEDI have teamed up with 11 collaborators from all over Europe to look at the process of cornea transplant immune rejection in much greater detail. The five year project which is called ‘VISICORT’ is being funded by the EU Framework Programme 7, and the final year will involve a clinical trial carried out in Galway using stem cells made at the NUI Galway, Centre for Cell Manufacturing (CCMI) facility.
Based in NUI Galway, REMEDI (www.remedi.ie) was established in 2003 through a Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) Centre for Science Engineering and Technology (CSET) award, and industry funding. REMEDI is part of the National Centre for Biomedical Engineering Science and manages the Centre for Cell Manufacturing Ireland, an Irish Medicines Board licensed facility for the manufacture of stem cells.
Author: Marketing and Communications Office, NUI Galway