The Dominion Post

LAB-GROWN RETINA COULD CURE VISION LOSS

- OLIVIA WANNAN

IN WHAT sounds like a gruesome sci-fi plot, Victoria University researcher David Ackerley is preparing to grow an artificial retina.

The biotechnol­ogist, and others in a world-leading internatio­nal team, hope it could help to cure one of the most common forms of vision loss.

The retina is a layer of lightsensi­tive cells at the back of the eye, connecting to the brain and allowing us to see. Though its cells consistent­ly regrow themselves, this is an imperfect process – and some people are geneticall­y predispose­d to more frequent damage or the repair going astray, leading to degenerati­ve blindness.

The ‘‘retina in a petri dish’’ will be grown from stem cells at Johns Hopkins University in the United States. Ackerley’s team at Victoria and a second at Johns Hopkins will act as chefs, designing the ideal DNA recipe.

Having successful­ly grown a prototype healthy one, their next step is to make an unhealthy one that mimics degenerati­ve blindness.

‘‘Now you’ve got it working, the question is how do you make it stop working in a way that mimics degenerati­on [of vision],’’ Ackerley said. ‘‘The key thing is you want to leave most of the retina intact.’’

The internatio­nal team has been given a US$500,000 (NZ$684,000) grant for this work.

The trick to knocking out specific visual cells was to add instructio­ns to their DNA that made them die when exposed to an otherwise-harmless substance, leaving the cells around them unharmed.

Ackerley, with the Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre, is currently studying how transporti­ng such DNA recipes into cancer cells could become a revolution­ary new treatment. His team’s experience in this made him ideally placed to join the internatio­nal research.

Once they have grown the new retina, they will begin first by killing cells, then seeing what medicines help the retina to repair itself.

‘‘I wouldn’t say we’ve got a cure for blindness ... It allows you to look in a way that can’t currently be done for new drugs.’’

The example could be followed for studying diseases in other organs as well.

‘‘This is a great system for just being able to look at the cells without harming any animals, and actually looking at the human response.’’

 ??  ?? Sight unseen: The degenerati­on of cells in the retina is a common cause of blindness and will be mimicked in the artificial eye part.
Sight unseen: The degenerati­on of cells in the retina is a common cause of blindness and will be mimicked in the artificial eye part.

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