A Japanese woman in her forties is believed to be the first in the World to have her cornea repaired with induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). Announced at a press conference on 29 August, Dr. Kohji Nishida, an ophthalmologist from Osaka University, Japan said his research team reprogrammed adult skin cells from a donor into embryoniclike state to create a layer of corneal cells. 

These cells were used on a woman who suffered from a disease of losing the stem cells required to repair her cornea, the transparent coat which shields and engulf one’s eye. Her condition had resulted in unclear vision and would lead to eventual blindness. After the transplant performed a month ago, Dr. Nishida said the woman is now in her recovery stage with improved vision and a clear cornea. 

With the success, Dr. Nishida believed more patients with damaged or cornea-related diseases could benefit in the near future as they could be treated using tissues from deceased donors. This will also elevate the pressure on the present transplant wait-lists. 

Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells 

The iPSC technology was pioneered by Japanese stem-cell biologist Shinya Yamanaka at Kyoto University in 2006. His discovery and research work were subsequently awarded the Nobel Prize in 2012 along with English developmental biologist Sir John Gurdon. 

At its core, iPSC is the introduction of “reprogramming factors” or proteins that manage the rate of genetic material transcription from DNA to RNA through the binding of various DNA sequences, into adult cells so that they become an embryonic-like pluripotent state which has the capability to be developed into unlimited types of human cells for therapeutic purposes. 

Thus far, researchers have been using this form of reprogrammed stem cells in the experimental treatments of other eye conditionsParkinson’s disease, and spinal cord injuries. Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare had given Dr. Nishida and his research team permission to experiment the same procedure on four other patients, with the next surgery planned to take place at the end of the year. The team hopes that the procedure will be widely adopted in other clinics within the next five years. 

AI and initiatives from the Japanese government 

Although regenerative medicine driven by iPSC is in the limelight, only research teams with relevant knowledge and equipped laboratory can duly perform the procedure at high quality fit for human use. As such, the Japanese government is now looking into the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to accumulate the experiences of researchers who had handled iPSC and from there, create some sort of standardization for the technology. 

According to Dr. Masayo Takahashi, Project Leader, Laboratory for Retinal Regeneration, RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology, the AI will master the technique of iPSC from different experienced researchers via deep learning (DL). The lessons learnt by one AI will be copied to other AI, to broaden the adoption of iPSC. The initiative is believed to lower the cost of personalized regenerative treatment for each patient. 

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Hazel Tang

A science writer with data background and an interest in the current affair, culture, and arts; a no-med from an (almost) all-med family. Follow on Twitter.