By Adrian Galbreth
A new discovery by experts in the US could change the way in which people with vision problems are treated, it has been claimed.
Sally Temple of the Neural Stem Cell Institute in Rensselaer, New York, led a study which suggests patients in need of perfectly matched neural stem cells may not need to look any further than their own eyes in the future.
Along with her fellow researcher, she has identified adult stem cells of the central nervous system in a single layer of cells at the back of the eye, in a report in the January issue of Cell Stem Cell, a Cell Press publication.
She explained how it involves a cell layer known as the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE), which underlies and supports photoreceptors in the light-sensitive retina.
Without it, photoreceptors and vision are lost, but a new study shows that the RPE also harbors self-renewing stem cells that can wake up to produce actively growing cultures when placed under the right conditions and be coaxed into forming other cell types.
Ms Temple elaborated: "You can get these cells from a 99-year-old. These cells are laid down in the embryo and can remain dormant for 100 years. Yet you can pull them out and put them in culture and they begin dividing. It is kind of mind boggling."
The experts retrieved the RPE-derived stem cells they describe from the eyes of donors in the hours immediately after their deaths, but as the cells can also be isolated from the fluid that surrounds the retina at the back of the eye, they are accessible in living people as well.
"You can literally go in and poke a needle in the eye and get these cells from the subretinal space. It sounds awful, but retinal surgeons do it every day," she explained.
According to Ms Temple, their presence also suggests that there might be some way to stimulate controlled repair of the eye in the millions of people who suffer from age-related macular degeneration.
by Emily Tait