The eye is an incredible and complex piece of anatomy, which means it stands the risk of malfunctioning or becoming injured at any time. Glaucoma is one such disease that can cause vision loss and blindness, but stem cell research recently uncovered a potential method to overcome the disease and help prevent or even cure glaucoma.
The Science of Glaucoma
Glaucoma develops when the eye’s optic nerve becomes damaged. Since the optic nerve is responsible for carrying images from the retina to the brain, any damage essentially stops the communication between the eye and brain, leading to partial or full blindness. High eye pressure is considered to be the largest cause of optic nerve damage, though blood pressure also plays an important role as well.
Glaucoma is actually the leading cause of blindness in the world, especially in African Americans over the age of 40 and all people over the age of 60. It can be tricky to catch because there are often no symptoms or pain associated with glaucoma until the disease has significantly developed. Without treatment, glaucoma limits peripheral vision, causes tunnel vision, and eventually leads to full blindness.
The Stem Cell Solution
US researchers recently announced that stem cells derived from human skin cells can actually be transformed into retinal ganglion cells (RGCs), which are optic nerves vital to communication between the retina and the brain.
The study utilized skin cells from volunteers with genetically inherited glaucoma and volunteers without any glaucoma. The skin cells were then genetically modified into pluripotent stem cells, which are cells reprogrammed to behave like embryonic stem cells until activated to form any adult cell type.
In this specific study, the researchers instructed the pluripotent stem cells to become RGCs, and the stem cells were able to successfully take on features of RGCs. Most incredibly, those features varied between the cells from healthy individuals and cells from the participants with glaucoma. Though clinical trials are needed to explore the definitive application of stem cells in treating glaucoma, this study serves as an important confirmation that skin cells taken from healthy individuals form healthier and more effective pluripotent stem cells than the skin cells taken from individuals with glaucoma.
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