At the frontier of medicine: clearing corneas and restoring vision

12 December 2019
Meet Australian researchers who use stem cells to advance our understanding of how the body develops and what happens during disease.

Professors Nick Di Girolamo and Stephanie Watson were one of the first research groups to use stem cells to repair the damaged cornea and are now improving the protocols so that one day the treatment can be offered to more patients.

This work is the culmination of 15 years collaboration between Nick, a stem cell scientist and Director of the Ocular Diseases Research Unit at the University of New South Wales and Stephanie, a practising corneal surgeon and leader of a lab in the Save Sight Institute at the University of Sydney.

Read more about their research in Tomorrow’s medicine starts today.

The cornea is the most frontal tissue of the eye, and its transparency is critical for vision. Corneal disease is a serious condition that can cause clouding, distortion, scarring and eventually blindness.

The cells of the cornea are continuously replaced by stem cells that sit just outside the cornea. These stem cells are called limbal stem cells that mature into corneal cells. Nick and Stephanie’s research has led to a better understanding of where these stem cells are found, how they function and how they can be taken out of the eye and grown in the dish. 

One key finding in their research was the ability to grow limbal stem cells on a contact lens and use this scaffold to place the stem cells on the patient’s eye, following the removal of the damaged cornea. They found that through this treatment, they were able to restore the patient’s vision. 

Nick and Stephanie are now continuing their collaboration with the aim to move this treatment through the clinical trial phases, so that it becomes an approved treatment option. They are also investigating how to personalise the treatments for each patient, to improve its success rate. 

Listen to Nick and Stephanie share an insight into their research and the treatment option they are working on, and how scientists and clinicians working together fast tracks treatments from the lab to the clinic. 

Australian stem cell researchers are making important discoveries in the lab, that will move research outcomes towards clinical applications. Watch their videos.