Cornea transplants can give sight back to the blind, but they are notoriously tricky: Sutures can cause swelling. The body can reject the tissue. Each transplant requires a large mass of cells taken from a healthy eye. Now a Japanese surgeon, Teruo Okano, at Tokyo Women's Medical University, has come up with a method being hailed as a possible solution for all those troubles.
Okano has developed a procedure allowing doctors to grow an entire cornea from a tiny speck of cells in a petri dish in an incubator, peel it off at room temperature, and place it directly on the eye -- without a single stitch.
The experimental procedure, which is still at least two to three years from winning approval for medical use, was published in the February issue of the US science journal, Transplantation.
Twelve people have undergone the surgery since late 2002 to replace a cornea, the transparent tissue that covers the iris and pupil at the front of the eye. If accepted, the procedure could help tens of thousands of patients in the United States alone.
Alan Russell, director of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, said corneal cells grown with Okano's method peel away from the dish so easily, it is like removing a Post-it note.
The research "is tremendous work," Russell said. "Literally, it makes the blind see."