Scientists are working on eye transplants for vision loss. Who will sign up?

Scientists are working on eye transplants for vision loss. Who will sign up?

Often called the window to the soul, the eyes are more sacred than other body parts, at least for some.

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Awash in a fluid finely calibrated to keep it alive, a human eye rests inside a transparent cubic device. This ECaBox, or Eyes in a Care Box, is a one-of-a-kind system built by scientists at Barcelona’s Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG). Their goal is to preserve human eyes for transplantation and related research.

In recent years, scientists have learned to transplant delicate organs such as the liver, lungs or pancreas, but eyes are another story. Even when preserved at the average transplant temperature of 4 Centigrade, they last for 48 hours max. That's one explanation for why transplanting the whole eye isn’t possible—only the cornea, the dome-shaped, outer layer of the eye, can withstand the procedure. The retina, the layer at the back of the eyeball that turns light into electrical signals, which the brain converts into images, is extremely difficult to transplant because it's packed with nerve tissue and blood vessels.

These challenges also make it tough to research transplantation. “This greatly limits their use for experiments, particularly when it comes to the effectiveness of new drugs and treatments,” said Maria Pia Cosma, a biologist at Barcelona’s Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG), whose team is working on the ECaBox.

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Stav Dimitropoulos
Stav Dimitropoulos's features have appeared in major outlets such as the BBC, National Geographic, Scientific American, Nature, Popular Mechanics, Science, Runner’s World, and more. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter @TheyCallMeStav.
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