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Scientists Show How Routine Blood Sample Could Help the Blind

Put together, these findings suggest it is possible to assemble human retinal cells into more complex retinal tissues, all starting from a routine patient blood sample. Along with their research applications, these laboratory-built human retinal tissues might someday be used for transplantation in patients with more widespread retinal damage.

"We don't know how far this technology will take us, but the fact that we are able to grow a rudimentary retina structure from a patient's blood cells is encouraging, not only because it confirms our earlier work using human skin cells but also because blood as a starting source is convenient to obtain. This is a solid step forward," said Dr. David Gamm, pediatric ophthalmologist and senior author of the study. Gamm is also assistant professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences in UW's School of Medicine and Public Health.

In 2011, his lab created structures from the most primitive stage of retinal development using embryonic stem cells and stem cells derived from human skin. While those structures generated the major types of retinal cells, including photoreceptors, they lacked the organization found in more mature retina. The results of that study were published last August in STEM CELLS.

This time the team, led by Gamm and postdoctoral researcher/lead author Dr. Joseph Phillips, used their method to grow retina-like tissue from iPS cells derived from human blood gathered via standard blood draw techniques. About 16 percent of the initial retinal structures in the study developed distinct layers. The outermost layer primarily contained photoreceptors, while the middle and inner layers harbored intermediary retinal neurons and ganglion cells, respectively. This particular arrangement of cells is reminiscent of what is found in the back of the eye.

Work by Dr. Phillips also showed that the retinal cells were capable of making synapses, a prerequisite for them to communicate with one another.

The results were published in the March 12, 2012, online issue of Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science.

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