Lab-Grown Cells Could Restore Vision Loss

Retinal cell replacement counters effects of glaucoma in lab settings.

An unprecedented treatment that could potentially restore vision loss from glaucoma and other optic neurodegenerative diseases is one step closer to reality, according to researchers from the Schepens Eye Research Institute, Harvard Medical School.

In an address at the 2017 annual meeting of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO) in Baltimore, MD, Julia Oswald, PhD, presented research that showcased the promise of retinal cell replacement — a process where retinal cells are grown in a lab setting and inserted into the eye to replace retinal cells that have died.

Current glaucoma and other optic neurodegenerative disease treatments are only able to slow down the rate at which vision loss is incurred. Oswald and her team of researchers are working to reverse degeneration and restore lost vision.

“Imagine the eye like a fluid filled balloon that needs a certain pressure to maintain its shape and function. In glaucoma, this pressure rises over time, so it generates a force towards the back of the eye where the retina is located,” Oswald explained.

The first layer of the retina is made of retinal ganglion cells, which form the optic nerve, which is basically the cable that connects the eye and the brain, she added. Because of the pressure caused by glaucoma, eventually retinal ganglion cells will die.

“So while the retina is functional, the cable to connect it to the brain is lost,” Oswald said. “Initially [to a person’s vision] this is like losing single pixels from an image, but the disease will continue to progress.”

As that progression continues, glaucoma sufferers lose larger patches of vision.

“That’s when patients begin to see the doctor. It’s only then that they notice that something is wrong,” Oswald said.

Once this amount of vision is lost to an optic neurodegenerative disease, current treatments cannot reverse that damage. However, Oswald and her team sought to create a treatment where retinal cells grown in the lab could be transplanted into the eye to replace the cells that had died, thereby restoring lost vision.

“The big burning question is, ‘what happens when we transplant those cells [that we grew in the lab]?’” Oswald said. “When we take the cells and isolate them from the [petri dishes] and put them in [eyes] we can see actually see them migrate and survive.”

For Oswald and her team, the research points in a promising direction.

“It’s not just about putting the cells in place, but actually seeing them have the potential to reach the brain one day,” she said.

While current research was conducted on mice, who have much shorter optic nerves than humans, Oswald said the results are promising and relevant to humans, too.

“Our protocol can be directly applied to human cells so it will be adaptable at this point, it just will take a bit longer to grow these human cells,” she said.