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Scientists find way to fast-track production of stem cells that show promise in treating AMD

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In fact, the dysfunction and death of RPE is thought to be behind the leading cause of blindness in the Western world — age related macular degeneration.

Transplantation of RPE cells into the retina to treat AMD has been demonstrated in animals and is now being tested in clinical trials in humans. However, protocols to generate RPE from human pluripotent stem cells are time consuming and relatively inefficient. But a team of scientists at the University of California, Santa Barbara, reports in the latest issue of STEM CELLS Translational Medicine that it has found a way to isolate RPE cells as early as 14 days following the onset of differentiation.

"RPE cells are required for visual function and are a reasonable candidate for use in cellular therapy to treat macular degeneration. This study shows that it is now possible to produce homogeneous cultures in a shorter period of time," said James Thomson, a Wisconsin-based researcher who was the first to isolate human embryonic stem cells, commenting on the study.

The UCSB research team was led by Dennis Clegg, Ph.D., Peter Coffey, Ph.D., and David Buchholz, Ph.D. They based their study on earlier reports that neural retinal progenitors could be generated through the application of a handful of regulatory proteins, known as factors, that stimulate cell growth and function.

“As RPE and the neural retina arise from a common progenitor pool, we sought to determine whether this protocol could be altered to direct pluripotent stem cells to RPE with a similar efficiency,” Dr. Clegg explained. “Through the combined use of the retinal inducing factors IGF1, Noggin, Dkk1, bFGF and other factors added at specific times, we found that pluripotent stem cells could be directed to RPE, also with an efficiency of about 80 percent — and it only took 14 days.”

“Protocols currently being used to generate RPE cells take months; this protocol should be useful for quickly generating quantities of RPE cells for transplantation as well as for the study of RPE development,” Dr. Buchholz added.

“This report is important because stem cell derived RPE are currently in clinical trials for the treatment of age related macular degeneration and Stargardt disease,” said Anthony Atala, M.D., Editor of STEM CELLS Translational Medicine and director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine. “The protocol could prove useful for rapidly generating banks of cells for treating these conditions.”