A medical breakthrough by Australian scientists has shown how sheets of stem cells grown on contact lenses can repair damaged eyes.

The treatment transfers minuscule strips of adult stem cells from specifically designed contact lenses onto the eye, to help rebuild the surface of the cornea.

The world-first research could pave the way for an effective treatment for painful caustic or thermal burns, or severe inflammation of the surface of the eye.

Centre for Eye Research Australia researcher Karl David Brown said it was the first time they had proved cells had transferred from the contact lens to the eye to rebuild the surface.

During the trial, limbal stem cells, which function naturally to repair the eye, were taken from the edge of the cornea. Sheets containing hundreds of thousands of cells were grown on contact lenses.

They were inserted in the eye and left for four days. During this time the cells transferred from the lens to the wounded eye.

There are already experimental treatments using human amnion, a membrane that surrounds an embryo, but sourcing the donor tissue after a baby is born and ensuring it is of sufficient quality is difficult.

Brown said the benefit of this new technique was that the cells could be harvested from the patient's own eyes or, if they are too damaged, from donor tissue. Small human trials of the technique are about to start.

"I'm cautiously optimistic that the human trials will yield positive results," Brown said.

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