Neurology Central

Converting stem cells to retinal ganglion cells: the future of glaucoma research?

Researchers from Indiana University (IN, USA) have successfully developed and demonstrated a technique to derive retinal ganglion cells (RGCs) from human stem cells in order to identify the cellular processes related to glaucoma.

In the study, published online in Stem Cells, skin cell biopsies were carried out on both glaucoma patients and healthy individuals. The cells were then genetically reprogrammed to become (human) pluripotent stem cells (hPSCs).

Following this, researchers directed the step-wise differentiation of these cells through an enriched retinal progenitor intermediary to produce fully differentiated RGCs.

Previous studies have generated RGCs from a pluripotent source, but have been unable to definitively identify the resultant cells due to a lack of specific markers. This issue is eliminated in this new research by the use of the step-wise differentiation process, resulting in all associated features and functions of RGCs being fully exhibited .

The team, led by Jason Meyer, observed a difference in the RGCs generated from skin cells taken from glaucoma sufferers compared to those taken from healthy volunteers, despite the original skin cells being identical in both cases.

Meyer commented: “When we turned glaucoma patients’ skin cells into stem cells and then into RGCs, the cells became unhealthy and started dying off at a much faster rate than those of healthy individuals.”

Glaucoma is a degenerative disorder affecting more than 60 million people. It is the most common disease to affect RGCs – which become damaged over time – leading to vision loss and blindness.  This new research raises the possibility of a new approach for researching, and one day treating, glaucoma.

“Now that we have produced cells that develop the features of glaucoma in culture dishes, we want to see if compounds we add to these RGCs can slow down the degeneration process or prevent these cells from dying off. In the more distant future, we may be able to use healthy patient cells as substitute cells as we learn how to replace cells lost to the disease.”

Source: IUPUI press release; Ohlemacher S, Sridhar A, Xiao Y et al. Stepwise Differentiation of Retinal Ganglion Cells from Human Pluripotent Stem Cells Enables Analysis of Glaucomatous Neurodegeneration. Stem Cells. DOI: 10.1002/stem.2356 (2016)