Sep 30, 2009

Saving Vision with Skin Cells

Foundation News

Thanks to Foundation-funded researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, skin cells might someday restore vision lost to retinal degenerative diseases.

Researcher David Gamm, M.D., Ph.D., and his colleagues are turning the clock back on human skin cells to turn them into stem cells, and then coaxing them forward to develop into different types of retinal cells. When the innovative process is perfected, these cells — called induced pluripotent stem cells or iPS — could be used to replace and repair retinal tissue lost to disease.   

In a research paper published in the issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Gamm describes the complex process they are using to develop these therapeutic retinal cells.

The key to perfecting this approach is to accurately mimic the development process of retinal cells in humans, ensuring that the derived retinal cells mature as much like naturally developing retinal cells as possible. The research team also wants to ensure that unwanted, non-retinal cells don’t appear in the mix of newly developed retinal cells.

In addition to working with iPS, Dr. Gamm and his colleagues are using human embryonic stem cells, or hESC, to create retinal cells that might someday serve as vision-restoring treatments.  One advantage of hESC is that they do not have to be induced into a primitive state; they are already stem cells.

While hESC have been, and remain to be, attractive for a variety of medical treatments, an advantage of iPS is that they can be derived directly, easily, and safely from the person with the retinal disease who needs them.

Dr. Gamm estimates that clinical trials for using hESC or iPS to replace retinal tissue are about five years out.