Creating new eyes in a dish

In a big step forward for regenerative medicine and stem cell research, scientists at the Chennai-based Sankara Nethralaya have developed a way of growing retinal cells that can be used to correct blindness and retina degeneration. This will give fresh hope to millions of people who suffer from ‘irreversible blindness’ due to retinal degeneration or damage. The scientists in Chennai grew pigment cells from the iris and the ciliary of donor eyes. They cultured these cells in a petri dish and mixed them with growth factors to produce cells that resembled retinal cells and had their characteristics. This is a key breakthrough for it is retinal cells that are the light sensitive tissue at the back of the inner eye which convert light into electrical impulses that are sent to the brain through the optic nerve. It is the loss of function of this tissue that is in many cases responsible for blindness. Till now people with blindness had little hope and had to live with the condition. This includes people who may not have been born blind but who experience the gradual degeneration of their eyesight with the passage of years. There are at least 12 million blind people in India, a large per cent of whom suffer from preventible or reversible blindness. The numbers in this category are rising with the increase in the instances of lifestyle-related diseases such as diabetes. Blindness, thus, has been drawing an ever increasing number of people under its sway. With no expectations of cure, people have had to reconcile themselves to a loss of eyesight.

The current development is but one of a series of recent triumphs in this field of science within which experimentation has been going on for some time. It was reported recently in the medical journal Lancet that two blind persons were able to regain eyesight through the use of stem cells and there have been other similar successes in recreating the cells of other organs: early steps in the success of this science. Indeed, stem cells may hold the key to future medicine, with it being possible to turn these into any organ of the body. This will be a cure for diseases, with pathological organs simply being replaced when they malfunction beyond a point. We are as yet far from this ideal and it will take much experimentation and research before such miracles become a part of everyday experience. Yet it is theoretically possible, and as the triumph with the retinal cells shows, we are getting nearer with each passing day. It is now for the government to pick up the gauntlet and increase its patronage of such research so that it can be accelerated.
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