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Trials to Test Stem Cell Treatments for Eye Injuries

Retina close-up

(University of Illinois, Chicago)

5 October 2018. A series of clinical trials are planned to test the use of adult stem cells to treat injuries to the eyes that lead to vision loss. The studies are led by researchers at University of Illinois in Chicago and funded by a 4-year, 5.25 million grant from Department of Defense.

The UI-Chicago team led by ophthalmology professors Ali Djalilian and Charlotte Joslin is seeking better treatment options for military service members and others facing non-penetrating injuries to their eyes from threats such as intense heat and burns from explosions, fires, and chemical agents. Current treatments are supportive for people with these injuries, but they do not quickly address healing of damage to the eye surface and cornea, which can lead to scarring and ulceration in the cornea.

Djalilian’s lab studies mesenchymal stem cells and their use in treating eye disorders. Mesenchymal stem cells, also known as adult stem cells, are derived from bone marrow and other soft tissues that can transform into a variety of skeletal and other tissue types. The researchers propose harvesting mesenchymal stem cells from individuals genetically similar to patients with eye injuries and culturing a treatment broth that helps heal injuries to the eye surface. DoD and National Eye Institute at National Institutes of Health backed the lab’s earlier research in this field.

“This is a promising line of treatment because of the extraordinary healing factors produced by these stem cells,” says Djalilian in a university statement. “These factors help prevent damage caused by overblown immune responses to injury, which can ultimately cause more tissue damage than the initial injury. ”

The new funding will support early- and mid-stage clinical trials of these treatments. The early-stage trial will enroll 10 patients at UI-Chicago medical center with eye-surface injuries to test overall safety and dosage levels over 14 days. The mid-stage trial will be a larger-scale 28-day undertaking, recruiting 220 participants with new and older eye surface injuries, randomly assigned to receive stem cell treatments or the usual standards of care. The team expects to enroll participants at sites in the U.S., including veterans’ hospitals, as well as in Brazil and India.

The stem cells will be extracted from donated bone marrow, then cultured and grown in labs at Waisman Biomanufacturing, affiliated with University of Wisconsin in Madison. Peiman Hematti, a hematologist and cancer specialist at UW-Madison, who will direct preparation of the stem cells, is a co-principal investigator on the project.

Djalilian explains that taking a person’s own stem cells and culturing those cells into treatments would take 1 to 2 months, too long to be practical in this cases. “By the time two months have passed, in the case of most of the kinds of eye injuries we are treating in these trials, the critical window to use the cells to their greatest effect has closed. That is why we are using donor cells.”

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