Scientists at NUI Galway may be able to reduce the rejection rate of corneal transplant operations, meaning the number of people rendered blind from corneal eye disease may decrease.

The research, which uses stem cells, could lead to more patients holding onto their sight, if the technique can be replicated in humans.

Corneal eye disease is the fourth most common cause of blindness, affecting ten million people worldwide.

Corneal transplants are the most common form of treatment for the condition, and involve the replacement of the damaged cornea with healthy tissue from an organ donor.

Although 100,000 people undergo corneal transplants each year, the procedure suffers from a high rejection rate of 30%.

However, researchers at the REMEDI regenerative medicine institute at NUI Galway have developed a new system which could reduce rejection rates to as low as 10%.

The lab based study, details of which are published in the American Journal of Transplantation, involves the use of a type of stem cell grown from the bone marrow of adult donors, which when administered adjusts the immune system's balance, reducing rejection.

A follow up €6m EU funded study is now under way to examine the issue more closely, and will involve testing the research on humans in clinical trials.