|Posted on March 17, 2021 at 7:20 PM|
Whether they are tears of pain or tears of joy, the truth about tears is that these tiny, salty droplets are essential for the nutrition, lubrication, and protection of our eyes.
But the precise biological mechanism behind how tears accomplish these feats was hazy. Part of the problem is there are few good ways to study crying in the lab, but a new study might offer a pathway to greater clarity. In a new paper published this week in the journal Cell Stem Cell, scientists describe how they grew cultured cell analogs of human tear glands in the lab, known as organoids, and, perhaps more incredibly, how they managed to make these tear glands cry.
WHY IT MATTERS — Aside from the visual poetry of having artificial lacrimal glands bawling away in a petri dish in a lab, the fact is this may represent a watershed moment in treating dry-eye disease.
Hans Clevers is group leader at the Hubrecht Institute for Developmental Biology and Stem Cell Research in the Netherlands and lead author on the new study. He tells Inverse that the organoids open new avenues for treatment previously denied people who experience chronic dry eyes. An estimated 5 percent of the population experience dry eyes.
“The biggest promise is the fact that we are now in a position to start thinking about treatment of dry eyes with cells,” Clevers tells Inverse.
“And I guess the nicest takeaway for the non-scientists is the fact that you can actually grow tear glands in a dish and make them cry,” he adds.
The lab-grown organoids, which are essentially a collection of human stem cells cultured in a dish and coaxed into taking on certain traits analogous with actual human cells, could potentially parlay into a totally new treatment themselves. Essentially, it may be possible to one day transplant organoid-based replacement glands into a human eye: something the research community has been working towards for years.