Could We Soon Regrow Lost Eyesight in the Lab?

Scientists have for the first time successfully grown sight-giving cells in the lab and integrated them into the eyes of living mice.

The experiment, the results of which are published in the journal Nature Biotechnology, point to the possibility of eventually reproducing the very complex cells and structures involved in creating eyes. It also marks the first time scientists have ever been able to fully integrate artificially grown retinal cells into the retina’s larger structure.

“The breakthrough here is that we’ve demonstrated we can transplant photoreceptors derived from embryonic stem cells into adult mice. It paves the way to a human clinical trial because now we have a clear route map of how to do it,” Professor Robin Ali of Moorfields Eye Hospital and University College London is quoted as saying.

There are two types of photoreceptors in the eyes. They are known as rods and cones.

The test mice in this case had been robbed of functioning rods, meaning that they have very little night vision. Rod loss is a leading cause of sight loss in humans, relating to a number of degenerative eye diseases such as age-related macular degeneration, among others.

Using a recent breakthrough in 3D culture techniques, Professor Ali and team, using stem cells extracted from mouse embryos, grew light-sensitive rod cells using an artificial retina in a laboratory dish. This allowed the rod cells to conform to the complex structure that is found in the retina and that is important for proper eye function.

The scientists then transplanted 200,000 of those photoreceptor cells into the retina of the night blind mice.

Three weeks after transplantation and a proportion of those 200,000 photoreceptor cells had integrated into the mouse retina. In fact, they now exhibited characteristics of normal mature rod cells. Moreover, the scientists also observed new nerve connections, suggesting that the cells were able to establish connections with the retina’s nerve system.

However, the scientists have not yet observed any improvement in the mice subjects’ night vision. They remain hopeful, however, that this test points the way toward human trials — and soon.

“This is a real proof of concept that photoreceptors can be transplanted from an embryonic stem cell’s source and it gives us a route map to now do this in humans. That’s why we’re so excited, five years is a now a realistic aim for starting a clinical trial,” Ali told the BBC.

The efficiency of the procedure and the uptake of artificially grown rods would have to be dramatically improved before any human treatment would be viable, but there is reason to think that this might be achievable.

The second issue, however, is one that is less easy to brush off: that of animal testing.

This research has been done on specially impaired mice. The ethics of that remain a concern for many animal rights advocates, but even discounting this, there is the fact that, while the procedure should remain similar when adapting it to humans, this is all just hearsay until human research is carried out and the treatment’s effectiveness for human patients ascertained.

This once again outlines why a growing number of people even within the medical research field oppose animal tests as, a large proportion of cases, arbitrary and cruel.

A third issue, of course, would be the need to use human embryonic stem cells, something that currently raises fierce opposition among those who, despite no evidence, contend that human life begins at conception.

That said, this research offers a tantalizing glimpse at an achievable way to treat blindness. This is something that before seemed decades away, but now may just be a matter of years.

For the 21.2 million American adults who are forced to live their lives either with partial sight or no sight at all, this news will still be significant and welcome.

Image credit: Thinkstock.


Jim Ven
Jim Ven3 years ago

thanks for the article.

Jane R.
Jane R5 years ago

This is good news. I hope it works for humans and that it will be available in the near future.

Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson5 years ago

(continued) I had had a high fever for some time before this happened, and had been given an antibiotic shot along with a steroid shot. The doctors speculate that the high fever or the steroid could have caused or contributed to the blind spot, which grew and split and combined to encase the vision in my left eye. Since then I have had three recurrences of the blind spots, which lasts for a few months, followed by extreme double vision, headaches, and vision that (when it returns) is worse than it was before the blind spots. I am 22. Some of the doctors are hopeful, others say I may be entirely blind in both eyes in 20 to 40 years if the pattern continues. It's scary, seeing the world (blurry though it be) and knowing that one day I may not be able to see my crocheting, my books, or my son's faces. I may not ever see my grandchildren. I was given a temp DQ in the Marines, pending the doctor's clearance. The doctor can't clear me unless my eyes improve, so that dream had to change. When the blindness comes up i can't drive, and even when the blindness is gone i can't drive in rain or darkness or cloudy weather, bc my depth perception just doesn't allow it. I may lose my license... pregnancy has made my contacts almost useless. this sort of thing could be the answer

Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson5 years ago

If this progresses, i could see again?!? Mice are cute but to restore sight is... beyong incredible! If this is the only way is it not worth it?!? I began losing my sight in 4th grade, just regular near nearsightedness. I got glasses, life was fine. I got contacts in 9th grade. All was well (my eyes got continuously worse but was corrected with the lenses) I was 3 weeks from shipping out for Linguistics in the Marines, when one Friday I noticed that when I closed my right eye to apply eye shadow I couldnt see the eye lid at all. nothing, like those spots you get when you look into a light too long. I told my dad, who took me to the local eye doctor that Saturday. He noticed some cysts, but thought something else could be going on. So he got me in with the head ophthalmologist at Chapel Hill. Saturday my corrected vision in my left eye was 20/35... Tuesday it was 20/500. The blind spot had grown and taken over all but my peripheral vision, which was blurred. I went for testing every 2 weeks for over a year. I had macular irregularities but they could not explain the blindness. It gradually got better (the blindspot) but the vision improved only slightly.

Carrie-Anne Brown

thanks for sharing

Spencer Y.
Spencer Young5 years ago

If in fact this is true then i love mieces to pieces All those in favor say eye and all opposed give nose.... As usually the eyes are above the nose This is a good thing.

Vivianne Mosca-Clark

Stem cells are in fat deposits on our bodies. They can be taken and not hurt anything.

Mandy H.
Mandy H5 years ago

I can't say that I'm overly impressed that there has been animal testing involved in this BUT I did expect it (which is very sad). It is good news for those who are sight impaired, still I hope in the future no animals will need to be harmed.

Marg Tyrell
Margaret Tyrell5 years ago

I know that testing on animals is upsetting but sometimes there's no other way of moving forward. A relative of mine was blind for years and I know how dreadful it is. Any breakthrough in treatment is wonderful news.

Barbara M5 years ago

As somebody who's been at risk of blindness for most of my adult life, I can't tell you how grateful I am to those mice.