Millions of people worldwide suffer from degenerative retinal disease as the receptors at the back of the eye die without being replaced. However, the new research may offer some hope for treating the problem.
Experts in Canada found a way to transform dormant support neurons — Muller glial cells — into tissues that perform as cone photoreceptors which help in visual acuity.
It has so far only been tested on mice however scientists believe that it could be developed into a therapy that can restore people’s vision.
Neuroscientist and first author Camille Boudreau-Pinsonneault from the University of Montreal said: “What’s interesting is that these Müller cells are known to reactivate and regenerate retina in fish.”
“But in mammals, including humans, they don’t normally do so, not after injury or disease. And we don’t yet fully understand why.”
The focus genes in the study were Ikzf1 and Ikzf4, and their produced proteins.
These patients are regarded as temporal identity factors that are responsible for forming cells into various types.
According to the study: “The Müller glial cells were isolated and cultured before being reprogrammed using a variety of temporal identity factors, including Ikzf1 and Ikzf4.”
The study which was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that these factors didn’t fully transform the glial cells into cone cells, but they did take on some of the necessary characteristics to function like the photoreceptors.
While glial cells are responsible for nourishment, regulation, and organisation of other cells in the eye, the researchers noted there’s enough of a surplus to safely convert a number of the support cells into the photoreceptor-like cells — crucial for seeing light and identifying colours.
The trial is in its early days however, the process could eventually be carried out in humans, without transplanting new cells.
The research findings can also help treat brain diseases — being able to replace certain neurons that have been damaged by reprogramming other types of cells.
The results were promising but there’s more work still to be done. The team of experts is looking further at the process of cell transformation and finding out ways to launch probes for making it more efficient.
Doctoral student Ajay David from the University of Montreal said: “[W]e may one day be able to take advantage of the cells that are normally present in the retina and stimulate them to regenerate retinal cells lost to pathological conditions and to restore vision.”