When Ken Aldrich describes the cornea forming in a petri dish at his company's lab, it sounds crazy. But these little ball of cells might actually spare animals from lab testing and be used for transplants in humans.
Aldrich is chairman of International Stem Cell Corporation, a biotech company headquartered in Oceanside, California. ISCO has deftly avoided the ethics debate with its parthenogenetic stem cell technology. Their process uses unfertilized eggs not needed for IVF, with consent. Scientists then use a combination of chemicals, temperature, and oxygen control to prompt cell division, which creates a group of cells called a blastocyst to make a stem cell line. No sperm needed. (The results were published in peer-reviewed Cloning & Stem Cells Journal.)
While growing stem cells in the lab using blastocysts, researchers spotted something in the waste products usually discarded from the petri dish. "One of them saw a translucent ball like a teeny tiny marble that we’d never seen before and had the good sense to put it aside," Aldrich told me over the phone. "It turned out to be a human cornea." At this point I shivered involuntarily.
Cells don't normally assemble themselves in a petri dish, but some are programmed with certain tendencies. Heart cells will beat, for example. Aldrich says they're not sure exactly why the cells formed a ball with layers, but the company's scientists were able to show that their discovery really was a human cornea and even replicate the result.
Many cosmetics, drug, and chemical companies still put their products in live rabbits' eyes for safety testing--a process that's not only awful for the animals but time-consuming and expensive. Aldrich says that with the ISCO corneas, an initial round of testing demonstrated that they have the same permeability as the rabbit eyes. The lab-grown corneas also have the potential to be transplanted into humans one day. Aldrich says that this could make a big difference in countries where it's difficult to get refrigerated donor corneas to patients in time.
Currently the company is repeating a round of validation testing to confirm its permeability results. I can't wait to see what happens.
Photo: It's an eye! Courtesy Ken Aldrich/ISCO.