Japanese Woman Received the World's First iPS Corneal Transplant

The team from Osaka University that carried out the surgery says that the woman is recovering well.

A Japanese woman has become the first person ever to receive an iPS corneal transplant. In an incredible feat of medical advancement, a team from Osaka University in Japan conducted the first-ever corneal transplant in July, using reprogrammed stem cells

Up until now, corneal transplants have been possible; however, they depend on corneas from deceased donors. In Japan, there is a shortage of corneas available for surgery -- with 1,600 patients waiting for transplants.

So this new surgery could help thousands, and ultimately millions of people.

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How did the team carry out the transplant?

Kohji Nishida led the University's team that conducted the transplant on the left eye of the woman. The woman, who is in her forties, was suffering from corneal epithelial stem cell deficiency, which can lead to blindness. 

The surgery was carried out on July 27, and the patient was discharged on August 23. Still monitored closely, the doctors said she is recovering well and can see better out of her operated eye, enough to function normally in her daily life. 

"We have only conducted the first operation and we are continuing to monitor the patient carefully," said Nishida. He and his team are due to carry out the same operation on three more patients before the end of next year. 

The ultimate goal is to make the treatment practical in five years' time. 

What is the corneal disease, and how can it be treated?

The cornea is the transparent layer that covers our eye, protecting it from outside factors and residue. It regenerates itself naturally and heals itself through regenerated cells. 

When a person suffers from corneal disease, the cells in the eye stop producing the cornea, usually because of illness or injury. It can ultimately lead to blindness or loss of vision. 

Japanese Woman Received the World's First iPS Corneal Transplant
The structure of our eyes, with the cornea right at the front. Source: Holly Fischer/Wikimedia Commons

What the team did in order to treat, and hopefully cure the corneal disease was to transplant a very thin layer of corneal tissue -- the team here used a cell sheet 0.03-0.05 millimeters thick -- produced by another person's induced pluripotent stem cells or iPS. 

These stem cells are created by recreating adult skin cells from the donor into an embryonic state, from where they can regenerate into different types of cells -- in this case, corneal cells. 

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The team in Osaka believe that one surgery and transplant should be enough to last the patient a lifetime

These incredible iPS stem cells were first discovered by Japanese stem-cell biologist, Shinya Yamanaka at Kyoto University, winning him the Nobel Prize for his discovery. 

The Japanese health ministry gave permission to Nishida and his team to carry out the procedure on four patients.

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