For centuries, corneal diseases have led to a complete loss of vision for hundreds of millions of people throughout the world. In fact, according to statistics outlined in the January 2001 issue of Bull World Health Organization, over 4.9 million individuals lose their vision due to a condition known as corneal scarring, or trachoma (1). Known as the second most common cause of vision loss (2), corneal disease is the result of an illness or injury to the cornea, which results in full or partial blindness. Although there have been little developments in the restoration of sight for those suffering from corneal disease, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh may have uncovered an unlikely treatment – stem cells gathered from wisdom teeth (3).
A Brief Exploration into Corneal Disease
Before delving into the specifics regarding this cutting-edge treatment, it’s imperative to understand the cornea and corneal disease. In the most fundamental sense, the cornea is the outermost layer of your eye. If you were to look at your eyes, the cornea is transparent, dome-shaped surface protecting your eye. Although its transparent surface appears to lack substance, it’s actually a concentration of specialized proteins and cells nourished by your tears and fluid found in the anterior portion of your eye, known as aqueous humor (4).
Even though the cornea is well-equipped at rejuvenating itself from minor injuries or abrasions, the National Eye Institute states diseases or disorders, such as pink eye, infections, dry eye, Fuch’s Dystrophy and Herpes Zoster (or shingles) can cause debilitating scarring to this sensitive portion of the body (4). While the eyes feature a robust ability to heal itself, should these conditions go untreated, or worsen, the actual cornea can become scarred. In severe cases, this damage leads to a significant reduction – or elimination – of vision.
For decades, the most common treatment for corneal disease was through a full corneal transplant, and while over 40,000 procedures are carried out in the United States each year, serious side effects, such as cornea rejection and serious infections, are possible (4). However, based upon the latest research into stem cell technologies and use, there may be an effective alternative to traditional corneal treatment plans.
A Cure for Blindness? The Potential of Wisdom Tooth Stem Cells
Throughout the past several years, the discussion of stem cells for the use of treating previously untreatable conditions has moved from the back rooms of research laboratories into the general public consciousness. In basic terms, stem cells are undefined cells capable of adjusting its cellular structure to match that of another cell (5). According to data outlined by the National Institutes of Health, stem cells may replicate without limit to fully repair – or even regenerate – damaged or missing tissues. Because of the virtual limitless possibilities of stem cell treatments, which now include repairing damaged corneal tissue to restore once lost vision.
Although there is much debate regarding the true effectiveness and widespread use of stems cells for this purpose, the discoveries made by Fatima Syed-Picard, Ph.D. are exciting, and for millions of blind persons throughout the world, hold promise for sight restoration.
The foundation of this treatment is based upon where the stem cells are harvested – from the human third molar, or more commonly known, the wisdom tooth. Stem cells live within the pulp of this tooth, and after analysis, researchers found its unique cellular structure allow them to transform into cells known as keratocytes, or corneal stromal cells. (3)
After adjusting the properties of the wisdom tooth stem cells into keratocytes, researchers injected these cells into the corneas of mice. To the surprise of many, the newly formed cornea was not rejected by the mice. As time progressed, the injected stem cells cultivated a corneal stroma identical to natural corneal tissue. (3)
A Breakthrough Worth Investigating
Although this initial study requires further investigation, preliminary evidence suggests the use of a persons own wisdom tooth stem cells could effectively treat and restore health to destroyed corneal tissue. While other studies, such as the one performed by the Jules Stein Eye Institute and published in the October 2014 issue of The Lancet (6), found human trials to be successful, concerns regarding long-term safety are currently being discussed. Regardless, these scientific breakthroughs are mere glances into our future – a world where scientists turn to our own bodies for healing and restoration.