‘Speaker’ is in inverted commas because she had, unfortunately, lost her voice and so the talk was delivered by Christine, a Master’s student working on Alvena’s project. We were treated to a fascinating, early insight to some research very relevant to KC with Alvena making a great effort to answer the many questions that followed, despite being able to only whisper and the answers being relayed!
The project, which is being undertaken in Prof. Julie Daniels’ laboratory, is a 3 year study into the stroma, the middle part of the cornea that makes up about 90% of the full depth of the cornea, which discovered some interesting differences between normal and advanced KC stromal cells.
The talk began with a quick summary of the biology of the eye and possible causes of KC, categorised as biomechanical, biochemical and genetic but concluding that overall it is still a mystery. A couple of general points made were that the average onset age of KC is 16 years and that eye inflammations are common with KC. It was also said that the widespread use of laser eye surgery (which makes the cornea unsuitable for transplant) is contributing to a worldwide shortage of donor tissue, especially in Asia.
There is a long-term research goal to engineer a human cornea but the good news is that work to better understand the basic biology of all the different parts of the cornea is underway. It was explained that stromal stem cells have been discovered recently and these are being used to grow keratocytes in a collagen material, thus producing a stromal disc sample which can then be tested. Keratocytes are the key cells in the stroma that make proteins which keep the cornea transparent. Stromal cells taken from normal eyes and also from 3 samples taken from people with KC were grown in culture. These latter samples could only be extracted from the corneal ‘button’ removed when the eye was grafted and so were inevitably cases of advanced KC.
We were shown microscope views of the samples comparing normal and KC derived stromal cells and the differences were striking. Various tests looking at the structure, contraction and mechanical strength of the collagen materials with normal and KC cells revealed interesting differences between healthy and disease cells. It was stressed that these are preliminary results based only on 3 advanced KC samples with the caveat that cells in a dish may behave differently to cells in a body and that early-stage KC cells may be different to advanced KC cells.
Much work remains to be done but it is clear that progress is being made and it appears that alternative sources to obtain stem cells for each layer of the cornea are actively being researched so growing them all may be possible – and the prospect of putting them all together one day may be more than a dream but still many years away.
The group is very grateful to Alvena and Christine for sharing this information and coping magnificently with the difficult circumstances.