In a first, retinal nerve cells grown in lab

Researchers from Johns Hopkins University have developed a method to efficiently turn human stem cells into retinal nerve cells that transmit visual signals from the eye to the brain.

Death and dysfunction of these cells cause loss of sight in conditions like glaucoma and multiple sclerosis (MS).

“Our work could lead… to a cell-based human model that could be used to discover drugs that stop or treat blinding conditions,” said Donald Zack from Johns Hopkins’ School of Medicine, the leader of the research group.

Eventually, it could lead to the development of cell transplant therapies that restore vision in patients with glaucoma and MS.

Using a genome editing laboratory tool, investigators inserted a fluorescent protein gene into the stem cells’ DNA. They used a technique called fluorescence-activated cell sorting to separate newly differentiated retinal ganglion (nerve) cells from a mixture of different cells into a highly purified cell population for the study.

“The cells showed biological and physical properties seen in retinal ganglion cells produced ,” Zack noted.

Increasing efficiency

Researchers also found that adding a naturally occurring plant chemical called forskolin on the first day of the process helped improve the cells’ efficiency of becoming retinal cells.

The researchers, however, caution that forskolin, , is not scientifically proven to be safe.

In follow-up studies, the team is looking to find other genes that are important for ganglion cell survival and function.

December 2, 2015

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