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Rats and That Vision Thing

• December 23, 2009 • 9:55 AM

Stem cells might be able to prevent blindness caused by macular degeneration.

New research by an international team of scientists suggests that it may be possible to treat age-related macular degeneration using induced pluripotent stem cells — stem cells that can be created using other cells, like skin cells, from virtually anywhere in the body (making them far less controversial than embryonic stem cells).

The team, led by Dennis Clegg of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Pete Coffey of University College in London, published two papers on their findings, one of which appeared in the Oct. 27 issue of Stem Cells. The other was published this month in PLoS One.

The scientists restored sight in rats with a mutation that ultimately causes blindness. The mutation causes a defect in retinal pigmented epithelial, RPE cells, which then leads to the death of photoreceptors and subsequent loss of vision.
RPE cells are essential for sight. The basic progression for macular degeneration in humans is that without RPE, the rod and cone photoreceptors in the eye die, and blindness ensues.

The team found that by inserting stem-cell-derived RPE into the rats’ retinas before their photoreceptors die, they could prevent the rats from going blind. The rats that received the transplants were able to track moving patterns more efficiently than the control groups of rats that did not receive one.

Sherry Hikita, an author on both papers and director of UCSB’s Laboratory for Stem Cell Biology, said she believes the results show the potential for stem-cell-based therapies to treat age-related macular degeneration in humans.

Because the induced pluripotent stem cells can be derived from the patients themselves, it is possible to avoid the immune system rejection that is possible with embryonic stem cells. The scientists hope that they can stop vision loss in patients with macular degeneration by creating new RPE using induced pluripotent stem cells and transplanting it.

Alternatives to embryonic stem cells are not new to the Today in Mice blog; in fact, an earlier post discusses the successful reprogramming of human skin cells into mouse muscles, if you’re into that sort of thing.

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Elisabeth Best
Former Miller-McCune Fellow Elisabeth Best is currently pursuing a Masters of Pacific International Affairs at the University of California, San Diego School of International Relations and Pacific Studies, where she is the editor in chief of the Journal of International Policy Solutions. She graduated from UC Santa Barbara in June 2009 with a BA in global studies and a minor in professional editing. As an undergraduate, she wrote for The GW Hatchet and Coastlines magazine and hosted “The Backseat” on WRGW.

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