We can’t say how long the ‘verge’ is. Certainly years. But is it years-years or decades-years? Quite possibly sooner than many might have guessed just a few years ago. I like to be cautious about predicting breakthroughs that have not happened yet, but the results reported a few days ago at a major conference seem to have solved or significantly advanced solving some of the key problems in using stem cells to grown eye tissue.
There had been a lot of promising news over the last few years, and one of the most astonishing finds was reported from Japan just a few days ago at the annual meeting of the International Society for Stem Cell Research in Yokohama, Japan. Research Yoskiki Sasai has produced a proto eye from stem cells. This is different than previous stem cell results in three very important ways:
1) This is a three dimensional structure, mirroring normal eye structure, unlike earlier stem cell work which has produced a much less useful two dimensional structure;
2) The lab-grown biological structure is anatomically complete having both rods and cones in proto-form. Previous work only produced usable rods. This structure would, if it worked, produce an “eye” or a “retina” (or some transplantable thing) that would see color and see well.
3) Stem cell produced products seem to have latent stem cells embedded in them, often, which is one of the risk factors for cancer as an unintended side effect. According to the report provided a few days ago, this method should not have that problem.
Also of interest, the researchers have developed a way of packaging the grown retinal tissue for shipment and storage.
We should be impressed and we should be thankful that the Japanese have continued to fund and carry out research that was illegal in the US for so long. Had this work been funded at the levels that US based research tends to be funded, we’d probably have packaged up retina replacements ready to go in eye clinics by now. Depending on how politics works out in the US over the next few years, this produce will probably not be available here anyway. Retinal transplants will probably only be done overseas in countries without Republicans.
There is much more to the story than this, having to do with findings about how cells differentiate, which perhaps we can cover another time. Read all about it here in a reproduction of an article from Nature. The original report is cited below.
Main source: Cyranoski, David. 2012. Biologists grow human-eye precursor from stem cells: Achievement raises hopes for optic repair in the clinic. Nature. 15 June 2012.