Working towards more effective treatments for glaucoma, researchers from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) have developed a new method of generating retinal ganglion cells from human skin cell-derived stem cells. The team published their research in the journal, Stem Cells.
Retinal ganglion cells are a type of nerve cell responsible for transmitting visual input from the eye to the brain. Glaucoma is the most common eye disease that affects retinal ganglion cells. The condition is characterized by high levels of pressure within the eye which can result in vision loss, if left untreated.
Glaucoma is the second more common cause of blindness worldwide, and it most often afflicts the elderly. People of all ages are at risk of developing glaucoma, with 1 in every 10,000 US infants born with the condition.
It’s estimated that more than 3 million Americans are afflicted with glaucoma, and only half of these individuals have received a formal diagnosis. According to Dr. Jason Meyer, an assistant professor of biology at IUPUI, the new study could also have implications in treating individuals with optic nerve injuries.
The team at IUPUI harvested skin cells from patients with familial glaucoma and unaffected volunteers and induced the cells to revert back to pluripotent stem cells. These stem cells are undifferentiated which makes them capable of developing into almost any cell type in the body.
Meyer and his team induced the stem cells to differentiate into retinal ganglion cells. The researchers found that retinal ganglion cells made from glaucoma patients’ skin cells displayed different traits compared to those generated from the unaffected volunteers.
According to Meyer, this result was somewhat unexpected as the skin cells taken from both groups should have been relatively similar. “However, when we turned glaucoma patients’ skin cells into stem cells and then into retinal ganglion cells, the cells became unhealthy and started dying off at a much faster rate than those of healthy individuals,” said Meyer.
The new method of generating retinal ganglion cells could help researchers better understand the disease etiology, as well as identify and test new treatments for glaucoma. Potential drug candidates can be studied by adding them to the cultured retinal ganglion cells and identifying whether the drug slows disease progression or prevents cell death.
Meyer and his colleagues have already started testing glaucoma treatments using this method. “Our ability to direct the differentiation of human induced pluripotent stem cells to functional retinal ganglion cells allows for many new and exciting prospects for personalized medicine,” said Meyer.