Experts in Japan have published a recent study that suggests a new treatment option for eye disease may be possible, thanks to breakthrough stem cell research.
Specialists at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology, led by study author Yoshiki Sasai, suggest that human-derived stem cells can spontaneously form the tissue that develops into the part of the eye that allows people to see.
The report was published by Cell Press in the 5th anniversary issue of the journal Cell Stem Cell and suggests that transplantation of this 3D tissue in the future could help patients with visual impairments see clearly.
During development, light-sensitive tissue lining the back of the eye forms from a structure known as the optic cup.
In the study, cell culture methods optimised by Mr Sasai and his team helped this structure to spontaneously emerge from human embryonic stem cells (hESCs), derived from human embryos that are capable of developing into a variety of tissues.
Mr Sasai explained that hESC-derived cells formed the correct 3D shape and the two layers of the optic cup, including a layer containing a large number of light-responsive cells called photoreceptors.
As retinal degeneration primarily results from damage to these cells, the hESC-derived tissue could be an ideal transplantation material, he noted.
The expert said the research represents an 'important milestone' for a new generation of regenerative medicine.
"Our approach opens a new avenue to the use of human stem cell-derived complex tissues for therapy, as well as for other medical studies related to pathogenesis and drug discovery," he added.
As well as the clinical implications, Mr Sasai said the study will likely increase the acquisition of knowledge in the field of developmental biology.
For example, the hESC-derived optic cup is much larger than the optic cup that the experts previously derived from mouse embryonic stem cells, suggesting that the cells contain innate species-specific instructions for building this eye structure.
"This study opens the door to understanding human-specific aspects of eye development that researchers were not able to investigate before," Mr Sasai noted.