UCSB researchers, in conjunction with colleagues at University College London, have restored vision in rats using pluripotent cells – entities that can function much like embryonic stem cells but that can do so without much of the associated controversy. The success with the rats gives hope to both researchers and people suffering from the eyesight-impairing disorder known as macular degeneration.
The study had scientists inserting retinal pigmented epithelial (RPE) cells into the retinas of rats who carry the genetic mutation that causes this type of blindness. When RPE cells were inserted before the rats’ photoreceptors degenerate, the rats were better able to track moving patterns than their counterparts who were not given RPE cells. Dennis Clegg – professor at UCSB’s Center for Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology, who lead the UCSB team – called the advent of pluripotent cells “cellular alchemy,” as it allows researches to take any adult or fetal cell and turn it into what is essentially an embryonic cell, capable of growing into just about any type of cell – “lead into gold,” as Clegg put it. Induced pluripotent cells have been in use for about four years now. Previous experiments used either human embryonic stem cells or adult stem cells.
Clegg went on to say that this technology may prove especially helpful in that a person being treated with such cells for a given affliction – for example, Alzheimer’s disease – would be given cells immunologically identical to their own, reducing the chances of rejection by the patient’s body. “The second advantage is that you don’t have to deal with embryos,” Clegg said. In the case of the experiment with the rats, scientists used induced pluripotent cells taken from a fetal lung cell.
The experiment may pave the way for a similar experiment to someday be performed on humans, possibly by taking a skin biopsy and turning those cells into ones that would prevent macular degeneration. However, Clegg cautioned that there was no guarantee an analogous procedure would work for humans.
The results of the experiment appeared in two articles in scientific journals: in the October 27 issue of Stem Cells and more recently on December 3 in PLoS ONE.