Team makes break­through in reti­nal cell trans­plan­ta­tion

The China Post - - LOCAL -

A Tai­wanese re­search team has de­vel­oped a new tech­nique for reti­nal cell trans­plan­ta­tion that could one day re­sult in more ef­fec­tive treat­ments for an in­cur­able eye dis­ease that can lead to blind­ness, the team’s leader said Mon­day.

Chiou Shih-hwa, the direc­tor of the Di­vi­sion of Ba­sic Re­search un­der Taipei Vet­er­ans Gen­eral Hos­pi­tal’s Depart­ment of Med­i­cal Re­search and Ed­u­ca­tion, said the method, which is cur­rently be­ing tested in pigs, could of­fer a new ap­proach to deal­ing with age-re­lated mac­u­lar de­gen­er­a­tion (AMD).

The dis­ease af­fects more than 200,000 peo­ple in Tai­wan and is the top cause of blind­ness among peo­ple aged 50 and above in the West.

Drug treat­ments in­volv­ing in­jec­tions into the eye have been used for years to stem the ad­vance of the dis­ease, Chiou said, but they have their lim­i­ta­tions.

Sci­en­tists are now try­ing a newer ap­proach — reti­nal cell trans­plan­ta­tion — which is aimed at re­gen­er­at­ing pho­tore­cep­tor cells in the mac­ula, a part of the retina that is crit­i­cal for sharp vi­sion, and the reti­nal pig­mented ep­ithe­lium (RPE), a layer of cells that protects and nour­ishes pho­tore­cep­tor cells.

Chiou said a team in the United States has be­gun the sec­ond round of hu­man clin­i­cal tri­als in trans­plant­ing em­bry­onic stem cells in pa­tients to deal with AMD, but the team’s method of in­ject­ing the cells into the retina has led to un­even re­sults.

Chiou’s team has de­vised a way to gen­er­ate in­duced pluripo­tent stem cells — cells can give rise to any other cell type in the body — from hu­man blood and then ar­range them on a cus­tom­ized stent no thicker than a hu­man hair that is in­serted un­der the retina.

The stent serves as a mono­layer RPE, en­sur­ing that the cells are de­liv­ered as uni­formly as pos­si­ble and en­abling them to cover a wider area in the retina to im­prove the chances of suc­cess, Chiou said.

“It’s like try­ing to re­pair a road. With in­jec­tions, you can only fill in pot­holes and the thick­ness may not be uni­form. By in­sert­ing this layer, we are lay­ing down a smooth road that may give bet­ter re­sults,” Chiou said.

An­other po­ten­tial ad­van­tage of the new tech­nol­ogy, ac­cord­ing to Chiou, is that it can be cus­tom­ized to the pa­tient’s retina.

The stents have al­ready been suc­cess­fully in­serted into the eyes of pigs, with the an­i­mals’ eye func­tions re­main­ing nor­mal and the cells re­main­ing alive, Chiou said, and the next step will be to test the method in an­i­mals for ef­fi­cacy.

Should those tri­als go smoothly, the team would then ap­ply to use the process in clin­i­cal tri­als on hu­mans, Chiou said, hop­ing that such tri­als could begin in two to three years.

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