Retina in a lab: Fighting blindness from the petri dish

New research could provide an unlimited supply of spare eye parts

Scientists working to prevent blindness are aiming to create blood banks for the eyes, that would provide spare parts for those with sight issues. 

Using stem cells they managed in 2011 to create the first three dimensional human retina grown entirely in a lab. The expectation is to start clinical trials in the next three to five years to see if they can be successfully transplanted. 

Speaking to Newstalk Dr David Gamm, Director of the McPherson Eye Research Institute, said they still face problems of scalability.

"We know we can make the spare parts but it's one thing to make a spare part in your garage, another to make it at General Motors."

There's also the issue of making the lab developed eye parts fit for human transplant. 

"It's one thing to make the piston for a car, it's another to make it fit into an engine that isn't working or hasn't worked for years and to get that engine to run" said Dr Gamm. 

While there has been much progress in the field Dr Gamm warns that it doesn't mean a cure for retina damage is just one step away.

"It's a process. Someone didn't look up at the moon and say I want to land there and then it happened the month later. The most important thing for us in this field is to make sure it's carefully thought out. 

"If we do something carelessly we could set the whole field back decades."

Excitingly, the same processes that are used to create these eye parts could also be used to grow certain parts of the brain, which could ultimately help victims of stroke.

It's estimated that 272,000 people in Ireland will suffer from sight loss by 2020, and the ramifications of that are being discussed at the Fighting Blindness summit in Dublin today.