Institute of Genetic Medicine

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A soft spot for stem cells helps cornea healing

New research reveals a potential revolutionary way to treat eye injuries and prevent blindness – by softening the tissue hosting the stem cells which then helps repair wounds, inside the body.

The team discovered that the simple application of a tissue-softening enzyme, collagenase, prevents the loss of corneal stem cells following an injury and could prevent patients from losing their sight. It offers hope to almost 500,000 people a year who lose their sight due to chemical burns including acid attacks. 

The study, published in Nature Communications and funded by the Medical Research Council shows that keeping corneal stem cells in a soft environment is fundamental for their reproduction, self-renewal, and ability to heal damaged tissue.


This discovery was made possible by the development of a sophisticated microscopy technique which enables imaging the physical properties of biological tissues at very high resolutions. Using this technology in collaboration with experts in Photonics from Imperial College London, the team was able to determine that the corneal stem cell niche – the area of tissue in the cornea where stem cells live – is a much softer environment than the rest of the tissue. 

The scientists also discovered that stiffening the niche causes stem cells to mature and lose their self-renewing and wound healing properties.

Dr Ricardo Gouveia, Research Fellow at Newcastle University and first author of the paper said: “This study demonstrates a potential new way to treat injuries by changing the stiffness of the natural environment which we have shown changes the behaviour of the adult stem cells. Our imaging approach provides a valuable tool to analyse live cells within the cornea, as well as to further explore new therapies for restoring or even improving their function.”

You can read the full press release on the University press office page.

Reference:  Assessment of corneal substrate biomechanics and its effect on epithelial stem cell maintenance and differentiation. Nature Communications. doi: 10.1038/s41467-019-09331-6. 

Articles:  Optometry Today    iNews    Daily Mail Online    


Dr Ricardo Gouveia, Research Fellow at Newcastle University
Dr Ricardo Gouveia investigates the biology of the cornea using donor tissues

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