After seventeen-year-old Jose Uranga was burned from the waist up and blinded in an industrial accident in Chihuahua, Mexico, he was brought to Shriners Burns Hospital in Galveston.
Facial burns and high heat near the eye may destroy the stem cells that keep the epithelium, the white part of the eye, from growing over the cornea, preventing further injury. This “protection,” however, also brings blindness.
In a rare operation that restores sight to those injured by chemical burns, heat or some infections, UTMB’s Dr. Stefan Trocme last March performed a corneal stem cell transplant, taking stem cells from donor corneas obtained from the Southeast Texas Lions Eye Bank and transplanting them into Jose’s injured right eye, restoring his vision. This is one of the first such procedures performed on a younger patient, the surgeon says. To restore sight, Jose’s left eye required a standard cornea transplant.
As part of his stem cell transplant research, Trocme is attempting to cultivate corneal stem cells using human amniotic membrane—a good substrate for growing these cells, he says. Trocme plans more studies to perfect the outcomes, which he says, give recipients sight for two years or longer, perhaps permanently. Meanwhile, Jose’s epithelium now threatens his left eye. Down the road he may be a candidate for one or more sight-restoring stem cell operations.—Cathy Nall