Precursor of human eye grown in lab from stem cells

This optic cup contains the light sensing photoreceptors of retinas. It's the first time the feat was managed with human cells, raising hopes that damaged eyes could be repaired in the clinic.
Written by Janet Fang, Contributor on

In the latest effort to mimic our organ development in the lab, Japanese scientists have grown a human-eye precursor in vitro.

The structure – an optic cup – contains layers of cells, including the light sensing photoreceptors in retinas. With this finding, doctors could one day be able to repair damaged eyes in the clinic. David Cyranoski reports for Nature News.

The optic cup is only 550 micrometers wide, and it developed its structure without guidance from the researchers, a team led by Yoshiki Sasai of the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology.

  1. In their experiment, retinal precursor cells spontaneously formed a ball of tissue cells.
  2. Then they bulged outwards to form a bubble called an eye vesicle.
  3. That pliable structure then folded back on itself to form a pouch, creating the optic cup.
  4. This has an outer wall and an inner wall with layers of retinal cells, including photoreceptors and the neurons that receive visual info from photoreceptors.

Until recently, biologists have grown embryonic stem cells into two-dimensional sheets. In the past 4 years, Sasai has used mouse embryonic stem cells to grow three-dimensional cerebral-cortex, pituitary-gland, and optic-cup tissue.

This latest effort marks the first time anyone has managed a similar feat using human cells.

Last month, a group at University College London showed that a transplant of stem-cell derived photoreceptors could rescue vision in mice – but the transplant involved only rod-shaped receptors, not cone-shaped ones, leaving images fuzzy.

With Sasai’s organically layered structure, integrated photoreceptor tissue could one day be transplanted. The developmental process could also be adapted to treat a particular disease, with tissue stocks created for transplant and frozen.

The cells in the optic cup are “pure,” according to Sasai, unlike those in two-dimensional aggregates, which may still contain embryonic stem cells – reducing concerns that transplants will develop cancerous growths or fragments of unrelated tissues. “It’s like pulling an apple from a tree. You wouldn’t expect iron to be growing inside,” Sasai says. “You’d have no more reason to expect bone to be growing in these eyes.”

Researchers have started transferring sheets of the retina from such optic cups into mice, with plans to do the same with monkeys by the end of the year.

The work was presented at the International Society for Stem Cell Research annual meeting in Yokohama, Japan.

[Via Nature News]

Image by StaR_DusT via Flicker

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards