Age-related macular degeneration is the leading cause of irreversible vision loss and blindness among the aged in industrialized countries. One of the earliest events associated with age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is damage to the retinal pigmented epithelium (RPE), which lies just behind the photoreceptor cells in the retinal. The RPE serves several roles in visual function, including absorption of stray light, formation of blood retina barrier, transport of nutrients, secretion of growth factors, isomerization of retinol, and daily clearance of shed outer photoreceptor outer segments. RPE cell death and dysfunction is associated with both wet (neovascular) and dry (atrophic) forms of AMD.
How then do we make RPE cells from stem cells in order to treat AMD? In previous experiments, scientists have used RPEs made from human embryonic stem cells to treat two patients with inherited eye diseases. The results from these experiments were underwhelming to say the least. Also, the derivation of RPEs from embryonic stem cells was tedious and laborious. Is there a better way?
Make that a yes. A paper in Stem Cells Translational Medicine from Donald Zack’s laboratory at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine describes a simple and highly scalable process for deriving RPEs from human pluripotent stem cells.
To begin with, the cells were plated at relatively high densities (20,000 cells / cm square centimeter) in a medium called TeSR1. This medium can support the growth of human pluripotent stem cells and can also keep them undifferentiated without the use of animal feeder cell lines. SInce there are no feeder cells to make, the cultivation of these cells is much simpler than before and the variability from culture to culture decreases.
After five days of growth, the cells grew to a monolayer (the cells had grown and spread throughout the culture dish) and were transferred to a 5% carbon dioxide and 20% oxygen incubator. Three days later, they were transferred to Delbecco’s Modified Eagle Medium with F12 supplement or DMEM/F12. This culture medium supports stem cell differentiation. The cells grew and differentiated, for about 25 days, but RPEs were easily visible because they make loads of dark pigment. Once the dark colonies appeared, the cells were allowed to grow another 25 days. The cells were transferred into Delbecco’s Medium with enzymes to pull the cells apart from each other for four hours, then, after pipetting them vigorously, the cells were centrifuged, and suspended in a cell detachment solution called Accumax.
The separated cells were filtered and plated on specially coated plates, and cultured in “RPE medium.” This is a mixture of several different culture media that favors the survival and growth of RPEs. Because RPE colonies were easily seen with their dark pigments, they were specifically picked and passaged. The result was extremely clean RPE cultures from pluripotent stem cells.
The cells were subjected to a battery of tests: flow cytometry, Western blotting, Immunostaining and so on. These cells passed with flying colors and they are clearly RPE cells that express RPE-specific genes, have RPE-specific proteins on their cell surfaces, and even snuggle up to photoreceptors and recycle their terminal segments. The final functional test came from a transplantation experiment in which human RPEs made from human pluripotent stem cells were transplanted behind the retinas of mice with impaired immune systems. The cells, as you can see in the figures below, integrated beautifully, and were also highly functional, as indicated by the rhodopsin-positive vesicles in the implanted RPE cells. No tumors were seen in any of the laboratory animals implanted with the stem cell-derived RPEs.
This new procedure is able to make RPEs from pluripotent stem cells in a simple and highly scalable way. If human induced pluripotent stem cells could be used with this protocol, and there seems little reason that should not be highly possible, then such cells could be easily used for human clinical trials.