Researchers from Newcastle University in the United Kingdom recently discovered a fascinating way to preserve vision in eyes injured by chemical burns: softening the cornea. Now that researchers can use high-resolution Brillouin spectromicroscopy to visualize biological tissues on a cellular scale, a whole new world of research is dawning, especially for eye care.

Using this technique, the researchers noticed that limbal cells were more pliant than the central cornea, and limbal epithelial stem cells (LESCs) “populate tissues that are substantially softer compared to those supporting differentiated epithelial cells, thus constituting a niche with distinct biomechanical, as well as a biochemical/biomolecular profiles.”

This niche was the target of their next investigation with an alkali burn model, as chemical burns of this nature are known to cause corneal fibrosis and stiffening. They subjected ex vivo human corneas and rabbit corneas to alkali burns and then treated them with collagenase that is already FDA-approved for connective tissue softening and used for treating glaucoma.

The treatment softened the matrix of the anterior layers of the central cornea, thus recreating a limbus-like mechanical and phenotypic environment without compromising the tissue’s integrity. In effect, it softened the cornea and promoted stem cell proliferation and wound healing.

“The presently developed collagenase treatment represents a potentially valuable off-label therapeutic strategy to regulate cell phenotype via manipulation of tissue biomechanics, a methodology that can greatly expand the field of mechanical therapy,” the researchers said in the study.

Gouveia RM, Lepert G, Gupta S, et al. Assessment of corneal substrate biomechanics and its effect on epithelial stem cell maintenance and differentiation. Nat Commun. 2019;10(1):1496.