By Adrian Galbreth
As the ongoing fight against eye disease continues, experts from around the world are constantly coming up with new ways to help treat people with optical conditions or even prevent diseases from developing in the first place.
Now, for the first time, scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have made early retina structures containing proliferating neuroretinal progenitor cells, using induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells derived from human blood.
According to the specialists, they may have made two breakthroughs, as the retina structures showed the capacity to form layers of cells – as the retina does in normal human development – and these cells possessed the machinery that could allow them to communicate information.
In humans, light-sensitive photoreceptor cells in the retina along the back wall of the eye produce impulses that are ultimately transmitted through the optic nerve and then to the brain, allowing people to see, explained Dr David Gamm, paediatric ophthalmologist and senior author of the study.
When put together, these findings suggest that it is possible to assemble human retinal cells into more complex retinal tissues, all starting from a routine patient blood sample, the expert noted, adding that it is a "big step forward".
"We don't know how far this technology will take us, but the fact that we are able to grow a rudimentary retina structure from a patient's blood cells is encouraging, not only because it confirms our earlier work using human skin cells, but also because blood as a starting source is convenient to obtain," he added.
The specialists who work on the study envisage applications of laboratory-built human retinal tissues, which can be used to test drugs and study degenerative diseases of the retina such as retinitis pigmentosa.
One day, it could even be possible to replace multiple layers of the retina in order to help patients with more widespread retinal damage, the experts claim.
by Adrian Galbreth