Can stem cells eliminate a cause for glaucoma? Dr. Yiqin Du is looking for the answer.
Although scientists don’t know exactly what causes glaucoma, what we do know is that most of the symptoms are due to the malfunctioning of the trabecular meshwork (TM). The TM is a sponge-like tissue located towards the bottom and back of the eye that regulates the internal, or intraocular, pressure of the eye. A normally functioning TM flushes new fluids in, while flushing old ones out constantly, generally keeping a normal, stable pressure. However, when it is malfunctioning, the intraocular pressure can quickly increase or decrease, and if it sustained long enough, can cause massive damage to the weakest point of the eye – the optic nerve. Once the optic nerve is damaged, it cannot be repaired, and leads directly to vision loss, and if left untreated, eventually blindness.
Glaucoma is one of the leading causes of blindness in the United States and world. Currently there are some treatments available, which include shots of medicine, surgeries, or drug therapies, but they primarily act to delay or slow down the effects of glaucoma, not cure it. There is no cure for glaucoma currently available.
However, since the success of the Corneal Cell Biology Lab (CCBL) in finding corneal stem cells for the use of regenerating damaged corneas (a lab Dr. Du led research in), Dr. Du believed a similar technique could be used for treating glaucoma. To that end, through a few very generous donations, Dr. Du set up the Stem Cell Biology and Glaucoma Laboratory, and immediately succeeded at finding, and isolating stem cells from the TM. This crucial discovery led Dr. Du to begin re-implanting TM stem cells in glaucoma damaged TMs. What she found was that the TM stem cells had an inherent ability to locate the damaged areas and begin to regenerate new tissue to repair the damage. In recent animal models, Dr. Du has found that this TM stem cell implantation technique has completely repaired the previously damaged TM, and essentially, stopped the effects of glaucoma. While this would not restore any vision lost, this therapy may be very effective in stopping or preventing glaucoma from causing damage and preserving vision. More research is needed, but the results are very promising.