Scientists have taken a major step towards restoring vision for blind people with the help of stem cells. Human-derived stem cells can spontaneously form the tissue that develops into the part of the eye which allows us to see, according to a new study.
Researchers say transplantation of this tissue in the future could help patients with visual impairments see clearly.
Senior study author Doctor Yoshiki Sasai, of the RIKEN Centre for Developmental Biology in Japan, said: ‘This is an important milestone for a new generation of regenerative medicine.
‘Our approach opens a new avenue to the use of human stem cell-derived complex tissues for therapy, as well as for other medical studies related to pathogenesis and drug discovery.’
During development the light-sensitive retina forms from a structure known as the optic cup. In the new study, Doctor Sasai and his team were able to encourage this structure to emerge from stem cells derived from human embryos.
The cells are controversial as creating them requires the destruction of a human embryo – a move that is opposed by pro-life groups.
The hESC-derived cells formed the correct 3D shape and the two layers of the optic cup, including a layer containing a large number of light-responsive cells called photoreceptors.
Because retinal degeneration primarily results from damage to these cells, the hESC-derived tissue could be ideal transplantation material.
Dr Sasai, said: ‘This study opens the door to understanding human-specific aspects of eye development that researchers were not able to investigate before.’
The findings were published in the journal Stem Cell.