A team of Japanese scientists has managed to create stem cells that re-enact the early stages of mammalian eye development in a culture dish. The exciting bit is that this includes a particularly important part of eye development: retina formation. The team’s work and findings, published in the journal Nature, could help provide methods for treating blindness.
The retina is a thin piece of tissue at the back of the eye. It is responsible for converting light, which has passed through the lens, into electrical nerve impulses. Thousands of these nerve impulses then travel to the brain, where they are processed to form an image. Critical to this activity are the retina's photoreceptor cells; the loss of these cells is the main cause of untreatable blindness. Without them, light that passes into the eye cannot be converted into the signals required to form an image in the brain.
In 2006, a team of scientists from the UK and USA showed that particular stem cells, when introduced into damaged retinas of mice, could help repair the damage. The stem cells they used were ones that had not quite completed their development into photoreceptor cells. While a drawback to this approach has been the limited availability of these cells, this latest advance in simulating retina formation on a culture dish could overcome this problem. The developing synthetic retinas could provide a ready supply of stem cells that are at the required stage of development. It is hoped that once appropriate stem cells are introduced into a blind person’s retina, the cells will divide to produce functional photoreceptor cells, gifting the person with the ability to see.
This article is based on the content presented in a research article in the latest issue of Nature (7th April 2011), titled: ‘Self-organizing optic-cup morphogenesis in three-dimensional culture’. To see the original research article, please visit: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v472/n7341/full/nature09941.html
To see some videos of the incredible, and rather beautiful, 3D eye cell cultures, please see the ‘Supplementary information’ section at the same link.
Posted on Tuesday, 1st November, 2011