Stem Cell Retinal Organoid Helps Cure Blindness

American biologists from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis are growing a retinal organoid from stem cells to better understand the interaction between the eye and the brain. Research can help to create cell replacement therapy that restores vision.

Laboratory-grown ‘mini retinas’, retinal organoids, is a collection of cells that mimic the growth and development of retina in the body in vivo. Scientists have created organelles using human pluripotent stem cells or hPSCs, which can be obtained from mature skin cells.

Jason Meyer, an associate professor of biology in the School of Science at IUPUI is using the retinal organoids to better understand retinal ganglion cells, which provide the connection between the eye and the brain. These cells are characterized by long axons to transmit visual information. In case of violation of this connection, a person loses sight.

“In the past couple of years, retinal organoids have become a focus in the research community”, – Meyer said. “However, there hasn’t really been any emphasis on those retinal ganglion cells within these mini retinas, the retinal organoids, so this study is not only looking at how the retinal organoids develop and organize but also exploring the long axons they need in order to connect with the brain.”

Damage to ganglion cells is one of the main causes of glaucoma, a disease that affects about 70 million people worldwide, and is the second leading cause of blindness.

“There’s a lot we have to understand about these cells outside of the body before we can put them into humans for transplants and treating those diseases”, – said Clarisse Fligor, a biology graduate researcher and first author on the paper. “This research is looking at ways that we can encourage growth of these cells for possible cell-replacement therapies to treat these different injuries or diseases”.

Fligor studied various growth factors involved in the development of retinal ganglion cells, and found that Netrin-1 protein significantly increased the growth of the axons of these cells.

“This protein is not expressed long term; it is most prominently during early human development”, – Meyer said. “Once the retina is established, it’s not as available, which is why retinal ganglion cells usually can’t fix themselves. Strategies so far to replace retinal ganglion cells by transplanting new cells have not been able to restore those connections because the body itself doesn’t produce these signals.”

The researchers hope that this work, the results of which were published in Scientific Reports, is an important step towards using artificially grown cells for cell-replacement therapy.

“If we want to be able to use these cells for therapies and encourage the proper wiring of these cells within the rest of the nervous system, perhaps we need to take a page out of the playbook of human development and try to re-create some of those features ordinarily found during early human development”, – Meyer said.