Archive Leonie Schittenhelm

How to grow a new retina

By Leonie Schittenhelm

Research at Newcastle University shows how algae-gels could lead the way in treating blindness with stem cell therapy

When Vanna Belton, a woman from Baltimore, was the first woman to regain her eyesight due to stem cell treatment earlier this year, excitement ensued. The possibility to repair diseased or damaged tissue using an individual’s own stem cells seemed close at hand. But while success of the treatment was undisputed, researching scientists can still not reliably explain exactly why improvement of eyesight in around 60% of patients occurs. Other studies have shown that reliably differentiating pluripotent stem cells into the coveted retinal cells, which are lost in many conditions leading to blindness, still poses a huge problem.

A group of researchers working alongside Prof. Majilinda Lako, Professor of Stem Cell Science at Newcastle University, have made a decisive step towards solving this problem. In a paper published earlier this month, they were able to show that growing human pluripotent stem cells in a gel obtained from brown seaweed significantly increased the amount of stem cells developing into pigmented retinal cells, similar to the ones found in the human eye. In addition to using the algae gel this was achieved by growing the cells in a so-called 3D culture, which had stem cells fully encapsulated within the gel for protection from external forces.

While stem cell treatment remains controversial, understanding how these cells could be safely and reliably used for therapy makes a tremendous difference and provides relief for people suffering from progressive sight loss. The Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) predicts that rates of sight loss could increase dramatically within the ageing population of the UK, with estimates predicting the number of people affected by age-related blindness to double by 2050. Research in Newcastle will continue on this exciting topic, as it is hoped that the algae-gel could not only be useful for growing but also for transport and transplantation of retinal stem cells.

Check out the paper: Hunt, N. C., Hallam, D., Karimi, A., Mellough, C. B., Chen, J., Steel, D. H., & Lako, M. (2016). 3D culture of human pluripotent stem cells in RGD-alginate hydrogel improves retinal tissue development. Acta Biomaterialia.


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