Healing Corneal Blindness with Stem Cells from Extracted Teeth

Scientists at the University of Pittsburgh have found a new way to treat corneal blindness, which affects millions of people around the world.

James Funderburgh and his colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine showed that stem cells isolated from the dental pulp of extracted wisdom teeth can be differentiated into specialized cells that can maintain the health and integrity of corneas and rid them of the scars caused by illness or injury that compromise the ability to see clearly.  These cells can be safely injected into the corneas of mice.

According to Funderburgh, who is a professor of ophthalmology, this new approach can replace damaged corneal eye tissue with tissue made from the patient’s own cells rather than cells from a donor. Such a procedure circumvents the problems of immunological rejection that dog the reconstruction of corneal tissue with cells from donors. Furthermore, donor corneas are in short supply in certain parts of the world (e.g., Africa and Asia).

“Our work is promising because using the patient’s own cells for treatment could help avoid these problems,” said Dr. Funderburgh, who is the senior author of a new paper describing the research, in a written statement.

A post-doctoral research fellow in Dr. Funderburgh’s laboratory, Dr. Fatima Syed-Picard, took cells from the pulp of extracted wisdom teeth and chemically processed them to differentiate them into specialized corneal cells. Then Syed-Picard and others injected these “keratocytes” into the corneas of healthy mice. Once in the eyes of laboratory mice, the tooth pulp-derived cells integrated with the existing tissue with no sign of rejection even after several weeks.

Could such a treatment work in human patients? “We are thinking that in the future people may ‘bank’ their extracted wisdom teeth or the cells from those teeth,” Funderburgh told The Huffington Post in an email. “For someone who did not do that it is possible to extract dental pulp with a root canal procedure, but this is still hypothetical. In the worst-case scenario, someone might consider having a tooth extracted to provide cells for this procedure.”

Last year more than 70,000 corneal transplants were performed in the U.S., According to Kevin Corcoran, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Eye Bank Association of America (EBAA), there were more than 70,000 corneal transplants performed in the US alone.

“There’s a lot of exciting research being done in the area of [corneal] transplant, and EBAA is interested in any outcome that can help restore sight to the blind or visually impaired,” said Corcoran, who was unfamiliar with the Pitt research.

Dr. Syed-Picard stressed that this research is still in the formative stages and the results are preliminary, and added that it would probably take a few years before human testing could begin. The next step, she said, would be to conduct a similar set of experiments in rabbits.