Calif. Inst. for Regenerative Medicine funds several research projects working to understand the basic mechanisms of macular degeneration and to develop novel stem cell-based therapies for the disease.
Nearly a million Americans are blind, with another 2.4 million suffering significant visual impairment. While there are several causes of blindness, the leading cause of all visual impairment is age-related macular degeneration, which affects 1.7 million Americans.
California’s stem cell agency funds research into potential therapies for three of the causes of blindness. All the research teams are seeking to use various forms of stem cells to rescue or replace cells in the eye damaged or threatened by the diseases. Several groups are working on ways to restore vision for people with age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Other projects are looking to preserve vision in patients with retinitis pigmentosa, and to restore clarity to the surface of eyes impacted by corneal disease.
In AMD the layer of cells that support the photoreceptors is destroyed. Without this support system, the photoreceptors, the cells that actually allow us to sense light start to malfunction. CIRM-funded teams are looking at various methods of replacing this layer of support cells called RPE (retinal pigment epithelial) cells. Some are using embryonic stem cells as a starting point to generate new RPE cells. Others are using stem cells obtained by reprogramming adult cells to be like embryonic cells, which could potentially come from the patients’ themselves.
Retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited and progressive vision loss that leaves most patients legally blind by mid-life, directly destroys the photoreceptors. CIRM-funded researchers are seeking to use stem cells to rescue the receptors from further damage and potentially replace them with new ones.
limbal stem cell deficiency
The cornea, the outer surface of the eye, is constantly refreshed by stem cells that reside in neighboring tissue. But some people just don’t have enough of these stem cells, called Limbal stem cells, to make enough new cornea cells. CIRM-funded researcher are trying to correct this condition, limbal stem cell deficiency, by retrieving the few existing limbal stem cells, and using various techniques to expand them in the laboratory until there are enough cells to rebuild a healthy cornea.
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