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Enzyme could save sight of acid attack victims

UK Scientists have discovered that the use of a tissue-softening enzyme called collagenase could prevent blindness among patients suffering from injuries caused by chemical or acid burn.

The research, published in the journal Nature Communications, found that the simple application of collagenase prevented the loss of corneal stem cells after an injury by softening tissue.

The findings revealed that keeping corneal stem cells in a soft environment is fundamental for their reproduction, self-renewal, and ability to heal damaged tissue. The team also discovered that the corneal stem cell niche – an area of tissue in the cornea where stem cells live – is a much softer environment than the rest of the tissue, and stiffening it causes stem cells to lose their self-renewing and wound healing properties.

"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,” study author Dr Ricardo Gouveia, Research Fellow at Newcastle University, said.

Ricardo Gouveia
Ricardo Gouveia

The team employed a sophisticated microscopy technique, to see images of physical properties of biological tissues at very high resolutions.

They used live corneal tissues as a model system and recreated the effects of chemical burns. After treating stiffened areas of the cornea using small and localised doses of collagenase, the niche once again became pliable and able to support stem cells.

Both the US Food and Drug Administration and the European Medicine Agency have already approved the collagenase formulation for related therapeutic applications.

“We show that the topical application of collagenase is safe and effective in restoring the normal stiffness of the cornea and helps tissue regeneration by preventing the differentiation and loss of adult stem cells after such injuries. We were further surprised to discover that the ability for a wound to heal was not directly caused by a lack of stem cells, but instead, due to the environment, these cells are exposed to. This really makes our therapy revolutionary,” Dr Gouveia said.

The technique may be further developed to help alleviate the lack of availability of corneas for transplantation and help millions around the world to be treated for blindness.

“We also think our study is relevant to other scientific and medical fields beyond corneal research and can help the study, diagnostics, and treatment of diseases such as cancer, where tumour stiffening is a known marker of aggressive cancer cell behaviour and of metastasis,” Dr Gouveia added.

The study was funded by the Medical Research Council.



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