The surface of the eye is covered by two distinct epithelial populations, the conjunctival and corneal epithelia. The stem cell population for the corneal epithelia has been found to be located at the area known as the limbus. This is a narrow ring of tissue at the transitional zone between the cornea and conjunctiva. This stem cell population is responsible for generating transient amplifying cells which are responsible for renewing the cornea epithelia. There are currently no definitive markers for the stem cell population in the limbus. Instead using morphological features, such as small cells with a high nucleus-to-cytoplasm ratio, in conjunction with the presence of certain markers e.g. DeltaNP63alpha and the absence of others, e.g. the cytokeratin pair 3 & 12, are taken as being indicative of the stem cell population. Damage can occur to the corneal epithelium due to a number of causes including, Steven-Johnson syndrome, and chemical or thermal burns. This results in invasion of the cornea by the conjunctival epithelium resulting in impaired vision. In 1997 Pellegrini et al. (Lancet 349, 990) successfully used cells sheets from cultured limbal cells to successfully treat patients with corneal damage. Since then several other groups, have successfully treated patients, using similar methods.
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