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Petri Dish Retinas

Posted by Ilena Di Toro | Posted on January 1, 2019

No one wants to have compromised vision. When someone learns that he or she has glaucoma, working to keep functional vision becomes a priority. While there are treatment regimens that help to keep intra-ocular pressure within acceptable perimeters, for many it is only a matter of time before they lose their vision. What if there was a way to repair the damage caused by glaucoma and other eye diseases at the cellular level?

Researchers at Johns Hopkins have found a way to turn human stem cells into retinal ganglion cells. The stem cells used in their study were grown from pluripotent stem cells, which were made from the cells of an adult. While use in humans is many years away, this development shows that stem cells can be utilized to treat those with glaucoma. In addition, stem cells can help researchers develop drug therapies to better treat glaucoma.

Donald Zack, M.D., Ph.D., the Guerrieri Family Professor of Ophthalmology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, is the co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Stem Cells and Ocular Regenerative Medicine. Together with Valentin Sluch, a former Johns Hopkins biochemistry student and now a postdoctoral scholar at Novartis, they were able to edit the stem cells’ DNA so that they would become retinal cells. They also learned that if they add a plant chemical called forskolin on the first day of the process, it improves the cells’ efficiency in becoming retinal cells. (While forskolin is available commercially as a supplement, it has not been scientifically proven to be effective in the treatment or prevention of blindness. So, don’t rush out to stock up on forskolin.)

What makes this study unique when compared with other stem cell studies is that now cells can be isolated and studied in pure culture. This wasn’t previously possible. Another great thing about this research is that, if successful, these lab grown retinas can “reset” the clock for persons with glaucoma. That means if a lab grown retina is transplanted into a patient with glaucoma, (which researchers say is not something that will take place in the near future) he or she may still develop glaucoma again, but not for another 10 or 20 years. While the idea of having the same disease twice in a lifetime doesn’t sound so great, current treatments are only able to slow the progression of glaucoma. Getting a second chance at sight will be a welcome development for many.

It looks like stem cell treatment options might be a way to improve outcomes for those with glaucoma. “Our work could lead not only to a better understanding of the biology of the optic nerve, but also to a cell-based human model that could be used to discover drugs that stop or treat blinding conditions,” said Zack.


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