The aim of this phase 1 study was to preliminarily evaluate the safety and efficacy of autologous adipose-derived adult stem cell (ADASC) implantation within the corneal stroma of patients with advanced keratoconus.
Five consecutive patients were selected. Autologous ADASCs were obtained by elective liposuction. ADASCs (3 × 106) contained in 1 mL saline were injected into the corneal stroma through a femtosecond-assisted 9.5-mm diameter lamellar pocket under topical anesthesia. Patients were reviewed at 1 day, 1 week, 1, 3, and 6 months postoperatively. Visual function, manifest refraction, slit-lamp biomicroscopy, intraocular pressure, endothelial cell density, corneal topography, corneal optical coherence tomography, and corneal confocal biomicroscopy were recorded.
No intraoperative or postoperative complications were recorded, with full corneal transparency recovery within 24 hours. Four patients completed the full follow-up. All patients improved their visual function (mean: 1 line of unaided and spectacle-corrected distance vision and 2 lines of rigid contact lens distance vision). Manifest refraction and topographic keratometry remained stable. Corneal optical coherence tomography showed a mean improvement of 16.5 μm in the central corneal thickness, and new collagen production was observed as patchy hyperreflective areas at the level of the stromal pocket. Confocal biomicroscopy confirmed the survival of the implanted stem cells at the surgical plane. Intraocular pressure and endothelial cell density remained stable.
Cellular therapy of the human corneal stroma in vivo with autologous ADASCs appears to be safe. Stem cells survive in vivo with intrastromal new collagen production. Future studies with larger samples are required to confirm these preliminary results.