Corneal stem cells could potentially regenerate a failing endothelium

Corneal stem cells could potentially regenerate a failing endothelium

By Dr Jenny Young |

The cornea is the clear part of the eye at the front. It protects the eye and allows light to pass through to the retina so that we can see. There is a thin cell layer on the inner surface of the cornea that keeps it healthy and clear. When this cell layer, called the endothelium, fails due to injury or disease, the cornea becomes cloudy and vision is impaired.

Unfortunately, the corneal endothelium is not normally able to regenerate itself through cell division. The only current treatment for a failed endothelium is to receive a cornea tissue transplant from a deceased donor. Hundreds of patients in Australia receive such transplants each year. We aim to develop new treatments for corneal disease that reduce or eliminate the requirement for donor corneal tissue transplant surgery.

The goal of one of our research projects is to develop a treatment that would stimulate the endothelial cells within a patient’s own cornea to divide, and ultimately heal, a failing endothelium. While working on this research project we isolated a small number of highly immature cells from a donated human cornea that gave rise to large numbers of more mature corneal endothelial cells. We analysed these immature cells and discovered that they had stem cell-like properties. This was an exciting discovery as it indicated that stem cells may normally be present in the cornea that could potentially regenerate a failing endothelium. Further research is now required to devise a way to stimulate any existing stem cells within the cornea to produce new endothelial cells whenever required.

Human corneal endothelial cells grown in the laboratory. The cells have been stained with fluorescent dyes to enable us to study them.

Our published manuscript describing this work:

  • Walshe and Harkin (2014) Serial explant culture provides novel insights into the potential location and phenotype of corneal endothelial progenitor cells. Experimental Eye Research 127: 9-13. DOI: 10.1016/j.exer.2014.07.002

Dr Jenny Young is a postdoctoral scientist at the Queensland Eye Institute. Read her Scientists of QEI feature here.


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