Mount Sinai Researchers Awarded $1 Million Grant to Find New Stem Cell Therapies for Vision Recovery

 – November 20, 2014 /Press Release/  –– 

The National Eye Institute (NEI), a division of the National Institutes of Health, has awarded researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai a five-year grant that will support an effort to re-create a patient’s ocular stem cells and restore vision in those blinded by corneal disease.

About six million people worldwide have been blinded by burns, trauma, infection, genetic diseases, and chronic inflammation that result in corneal stem cell death and corneal scarring. There are currently no treatments for related vision loss that are effective over the long term. Corneal stem cell transplantation is an option in the short term, but availability of donor corneas is limited, and patients must take medications that suppress their immune systems for the rest of their lives to prevent rejection of the transplanted tissue.

A newer proposed treatment option is the replacement of corneal stem cells to restore vision. The grant from the NEI will fund Mount Sinai research to re-create a patient’s own stem cells and restore vision in those blinded by corneal disease. Technological advances in recent years have enabled researchers to take mature cells, in this case eyelid or oral skin cells, and coax them backward along the development pathways to become stem cells again. These eye-specific stem cells would then be redirected down pathways that become needed replacements for damaged cells in the cornea, in theory restoring vision.

“Our findings will allow the creation of transplantable eye tissue that can restore the ocular surface,” said Albert Y. Wu, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Ophthalmology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and principle investigator for the grant-funded effort.  “In the future, we will be able to re-create a patient’s own corneal stem cells to restore vision after being blind,” added Dr. Wu, also Director of the Ophthalmic Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Laboratory in the Department of Ophthalmology and a member of the Black Family Stem Cell Institute at Icahn School of Medicine. “Since the stem cells are their own, patients will not require immunosuppressive drugs, which would greatly improve their quality of life.”

Specifically, the grant will support efforts to discover new stem cell therapies for ocular surface disease and make regenerative medicine a reality for people who have lost their vision. The research team will investigate the most viable stem cell sources, seek to create ocular stem cells from eyelid or oral skin cells, explore the molecular pathways involved in ocular and orbital development, and develop cutting-edge biomaterials to engraft a patient’s own stem cells and restore vision.

Other investigators from Mount Sinai include Ihor Lemischka, PhD, Director, Black Family Stem Cell Institute and J. Mario Wolosin, PhD, Professor of Ophthalmology. The research is supported by NEI grant EY023997.

About the Mount Sinai Health System
The Mount Sinai Health System is an integrated health system committed to providing distinguished care, conducting transformative research, and advancing biomedical education. Structured around seven member hospital campuses and a single medical school, the Health System has an extensive ambulatory network and a range of inpatient and outpatient services—from community‐based facilities to tertiary and quaternary care.

The System includes approximately 6,600 primary and specialty care physicians, 12‐minority‐owned free‐standing ambulatory surgery centers, over 45 ambulatory practices throughout the five boroughs of New York City, Westchester, and Long Island, as well as 31 affiliated community health centers. Physicians are affiliated with the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, which is ranked among the top 20 medical schools both in National Institutes of Health funding and by U.S. News & World Report.

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