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Transplanted Skin Stem Cells Help Blind Mice See Light

TUESDAY, April 21, 2020 (HealthDay News) — Transplants of skin cells that were turned into light-sensing eye cells enabled blind mice to detect light, a new study says.

In previous research with lab animals, scientists have programmed stem cells created from blood or skin cells to become photoreceptors and transplanted them into the back of the eye.

Researchers said this study shows that it’s possible to skip the stem cell middle step and directly reprogram skin cells into photoreceptors for transplantation into the retina.

The U.S. National Eye Institute (NEI)-funded study was published April 15 in the journal Nature.

“This is the first study to show that direct, chemical reprogramming can produce retinal-like cells, which gives us a new and faster strategy for developing therapies for age-related macular degeneration and other retinal disorders caused by the loss of photoreceptors,” said Anand Swaroop, senior investigator in the NEI Neurobiology, Neurodegeneration, and Repair Laboratory.

“Of immediate benefit will be the ability to quickly develop disease models so we can study mechanisms of disease. The new strategy will also help us design better cell replacement approaches,” he said in an NEI news release.

Induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells that are developed in a lab from adult cells — rather than fetal tissue — can be used to make nearly any type of replacement cell or tissue. But iPS cell reprogramming can take six months before cells or tissues are ready for transplantation.

The direct reprogramming used in this study turned skin cells into functional photoreceptors ready for transplantation in only 10 days. The researchers used both mouse- and human-derived skin cells and transplanted them in the eyes of blind mice.

“Our technique goes directly from skin cell to photoreceptor without the need for stem cells in between,” said lead investigator Dr. Sai Chavala, CEO and president of CIRC Therapeutics and the Center for Retina Innovation, and a professor of surgery at the University of North Texas Health Science Center.

While results from animal studies are often not the same in humans, the researchers are planning a clinical trial to test the therapy in people with degenerative retinal diseases, such as retinitis pigmentosa.

— Robert Preidt

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SOURCE: U.S. National Eye Institute, news release, April 15, 2020

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