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Researchers Grow Retina Cells From Skin-Derived Stem Cells

August 26, 2009

Adapted from the University of Wisconsin

A team of scientists from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health has successfully grown multiple types of retina cells from two types of stem cells—suggesting a future in which damaged retinas could be repaired by cells grown from the patient's own skin.

Even sooner, the discovery will lead to laboratory models for studying genetically linked eye conditions, screening new drugs to treat those conditions and understanding the development of the human eye.

A Waisman Center research team led by David Gamm, an assistant professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences, and Jason Meyer, a research scientist, announced its discovery in the August 24, 2009 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"This is an important step forward for us, as it not only confirms that multiple retinal cells can be derived from skin-derived stem cells using the Wisconsin approach, but also shows how similar the process is to normal human retinal development," Gamm says. "That is quite remarkable given that the starting cell is so different from a retinal cell and the whole process takes place in a plastic dish. We continue to be amazed at how deep we can probe into these early events and find that they mimic those found in developing retinas. Perhaps this is the way to close the gap between what we know about building a retina in mice, frogs and flies with that of humans."

Gamm says the work built on the strong tradition of stem cell research at UW-Madison. James Thomson, a School of Medicine and Public Health faculty member and director of regenerative medicine at the Morgridge Institute for Research on the UW-Madison campus, announced that he had made human stem cells from skin, called induced pluripotent stem (iPS cells), in November 2007.

In normal human development, embryonic stem cells begin to differentiate into more specialized cell types about five days after fertilization. The retina develops from a group of cells that arise during the earliest stages of the developing nervous system. The Wisconsin team took cells from skin, turned them back into cells resembling embryonic stem cells, then triggered the development of retinal cell types.

"This is one of the most comprehensive demonstrations of a cell-based system for studying all of the key events that lead to the generation of specialized neural cells,'' Meyer says. "It could serve as a foundation for unlocking the mechanisms that produce human retinal cells."

Because the group was successful using the iPS cells, they expect this advance to lead to studying retinal development in detail and treating conditions that are genetically linked. For example, skin from a patient with retinitis pigmentosa or macular degeneration could be reprogrammed into iPS cells, then retina cells, which would allow researchers to screen large numbers of potential drugs for treating or curing the condition.

Likewise, someday ophthalmologists may be able to repair damage to the retina by growing rescue or repair cells from the patient's skin. Earlier this year, scientists from the University of Washington showed that human ES cells had the potential to replace retinal cells lost during disease in mice.

"We're able to produce significant numbers of photoreceptor cells and other retinal cell types using our system, which are lost in many disorders," Meyer says. Photoreceptors are light-sensitive cells that absorb light and transmit the image as an electrical signal to the brain.

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Disclaimer: The information provided in this section is a public service of the BrightFocus Foundation, and should not in any way substitute for the advice of a qualified healthcare professional, and is not intended to constitute medical advice. Although we take efforts to keep the medical information on our website updated, we cannot guarantee that the information on our website reflects the most up-to-date research. Please consult your physician for personalized medical advice; all medications and supplements should only be taken under medical supervision. BrightFocus Foundation does not endorse any medical product or therapy.

Some of the content in this section is adapted from other sources, which are clearly identified within each individual item of information.

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