A new study using stem cells is changing how doctors think about the nature of macular degeneration.
Scientists at the University of Rochester first took skin cell samples from patients with different genetic macular degenerative diseases. They then transformed these skin cells into stem cells and programmed them to produce retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) cells.
After just a few days of aging in a Petri dish, these RPE cells started to show the typical signs of a macular degenerative condition. In particular, study authors note a high amount of drusen in the dishes.
Drusen is a yellowish deposit that forms underneath the retina in people with age-related macular degeneration (AMD). There are two main forms of drusen: "hard" and "soft." Hard drusen is composed of lipids that are very small and well separated. Soft drusen is made of lipids that are large and very close together. Typically, soft drusen is more dangerous than hard drusen. While drusen doesn't directly cause AMD, it often increases a person's risk of developing the disorder.
This study is extremely significant because it's the first time scientists have created a successful model of macular degeneration using stem cells. Also, this study highlights the importance of controlling RPE cells in macular degeneration treatment plans. As the study clearly showed, dysfunction of the RPE cells can cause macular degeneration without the interaction with other cells.
Ruchira Singh was the lead author on this study. Dr. Singh told reporters that this research shows just how important it is for doctors to develop treatment strategies specifically for RPE cells.
The RPE is located on the retina and supplies the eye with retinal visual cells. Most people with macular conditions have issues with retinal degeneration.
AMD is the most common form of macular degeneration around the world. There are about 200,000 new cases of this eye disease every year in the USA alone. This eye disease often affects people over the age of 40 and only presents symptoms like blurred vision when it has progressed a great deal. Eye doctors urge anyone over the age of 40 to get vision screenings annually to check for AMD and other serious diseases like glaucoma and cataracts.
Anyone interested in learning more about this research can check out the latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Study authors titled this study, "Drusen in patient-derived hiPSC-RPE models of macular dystrophies"