Stem cell retina could offer sight to the blind

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Hundreds of thousands of patients who suffer with macular degeneration have been given hope by the retina that has been grown from stem cells by scientists.

This breakthrough could offer sight to those people suffering from different types of retinal diseases.

Researchers have been able to grow light-sensitive retina by reprogramming adult stem cells back to its embryonic state.

Dr Valeria Canto-Soler, the lead scientist on the team, said that a miniature human retina with the ability to sense light and with the structure of a retina has been created by the team.

She said that this advancement may eventually lead to technologies where people with retinal diseases can have their sight restored.

During this experiment, the team encouraged the growth of the retina until it was able to continue growing on its own. Dr Canto-Soler said that when they commenced the project, they were not of the opinion that stem cells would be able to grow a retina almost single-handedly, however, their system has proven that the cells are able to do that.

The mini-retina was tested by the scientists when it reached a stage equal to around 28 weeks of foetal development, by the exposure of light pulses. The discovery they made was that the photoreceptors grown in the laboratory were able to respond in the same manner as the human eye does.

Dr Canto-Soler stated that their research has given them the change to generate hundreds of the mini-retinas at once from those affected by disease that cause blindness. These retinas could also be used to do further studies on the causes of human tissue retinal diseases, instead of making use of animal models.

The structures could also be used in the testing of drugs. Dr Canto-Soler added that dead or diseased retinal tissue could ultimately be replaced with lab-grown cells in a bid to restore a patient’s vision.

Age-related macular degeneration is the leading cause of sight impairment in the UK. It is caused by a retinal problem and affects up to half a million people. The disease is most common in those over the age of 50, with 10% of those over the age of 65 being affected by it.

Image Credit: Elizabeth Ellis

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