Could Stem Cells Save Your Vision?

Before the dawn of the age of stem cell therapy, irreversible diseases, conditions, and injuries were just that: incurable. But over the past few years, stem cell research has indisputably proven that the impossible is now possible. One recent study, for example, experimented with growing new retina tissue in mice with end-stage retinal degeneration. The results are incredibly promising for the future of ophthalmology.

A Brief Summary of End-Stage Retinal Degeneration

Also known as end-stage age-related macular degeneration (AMD), this disease of the retina is extremely advanced and is known to lead to irreversible vision loss and legal blindness. While aging does cause natural macular degeneration, end-stage AMD is far more serious because the failing of the macula makes even daily tasks impossible.

The retina is situated as a layer of tissue at the back of the eye, and it is responsible for sensing light and sending signals to the brain. When the retina doesn’t function correctly, the brain is unable to process information to perceive images. This is why retinal degeneration gradually leads to blindness. As of now, all standard research and information regarding end-stage AMD states that the damage to the macula is permanent and vision can never be regained.

New Research Changes the Game

Researchers led by Dr. Michiko Mandai at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Japan devoted themselves to their recent study to prove false the fate of those with end-stage AMD. Mandai and his team used skin cells from adult mice and transformed them into induced pluripotent stem cells. The pluripotent cells were then converted into retinal tissue that researchers transplanted into the mice with end-stage AMD.

Once the retinal tissue was fully transplanted, the researchers tested whether the mice could once again see light using a shuttle avoidance test. This type of test utilized an insulated box composed of two chambers separated by a wall with small openings. Once placed in the box, mice were trained to understand that a beep and light signal together indicated an upcoming electric shock, and the shock could only be avoided by moving to the other chamber. Once the training was complete, researchers only provided the light cue, not the sound cue, to see if the mice would see flee to the other chamber with only the warning of a light beam. If they did, it proved that they could see light and thus that their retinal tissue was healing.

The Results

Although the results did not occur in humans, the ability to improve vision in mice with end-stage AMD is still incredibly significant. By the end of the study, more than 40 percent of mice in the study were able to see light thanks to their retinal tissue transplants. These results mark the very first time that researchers have successfully transplanted the retina’s light receptors and witnessed the receptors communicate with the brain. If the same can be done in humans, then millions of people struggling with blindness could regain their vision.

Mira Swave, MD

Contributor at Regenerative Medicine Now

Mira Swave, M.D. is a specialist in the field of Regenerative Medicine.
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