Do stem cells in the cornea have their own genetic ‘fingerprint’?

Research details

  • Type of funding: Fight for Sight Small Grant Award
  • Grant Holder: Mr Alex Shortt
  • Institute: UCL Institute of Immunity and Transplantation
  • Region: London
  • Start date: January 2016
  • End Date: December 2016
  • Priority: Treatment
  • Eye Category: Corneal & external


The clear front surface of the eye (the cornea) is covered by several different types of cells, each with its own role to play in vision. These cells are exposed to the environment and must regenerate themselves continuously.

This regeneration happens thanks to a small number of stem cells located on the surface of the eye. Stem cells have the ability to produce more of themselves (by splitting in two) and become a different type of cell with a specific job to do in the body. They can be damaged by exposure to chemicals or by a variety of disorders.

People with damage to their stem cells cannot regenerate the surface of the eye. This is painful and uncomfortable. It also leads to sight loss as the surface becomes less clear. The only treatment that will restore sight in these patients is a stem cell transplant to replace the damaged stem cells.

In this project, the team is collecting samples of cells from the eyes of patients and from donor corneas. These are being separated into stem cell and non-stem cell groups and a new technology (known as RNAseq) is being used to analyse them. It lets the team see which genes are active in each of the groups of stem cells and means they can examine tens of thousands of genes at a time. The aim is to compare the groups to find out whether stem cells have particular genes that are only used by them.

At the moment, stem cell transplants into the cornea contain many different types of cell but only about 3 in 100 are the stem cells that are actually needed by the patient. If the team can spot a unique ‘fingerprint’ of genes for these stem cells, they may be able to use it to ‘purify’ the transplant to improve the outcome for the patient.