Stem cell transplantation is a promising potential treatment for retinal degenerative diseases. Because retinal degeneration often leads to blindness, stem cells might be one of the up-and-coming tools in the battle against blindness.
The laboratory of Shaomei Wang (Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles) have assessed the effectiveness of stem cell-based therapeutic strategies using the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) rat model, which mimics the disease progression of age-related macular degeneration (AMD). In RCS mice, the retinal pigment epithelium or RPE degenerates and is disrupted, which leads to the death of photoreceptors (Mullen RJ and LaVail MM Inherited retinal dystrophy: primary defect in pigment epithelium determined with experimental rat chimeras. Science 1976;192:799-801). The work by Wang and his colleagues has shown that human cortical-derived neural progenitor cells (hNPCctx) could dramatically rescue vision in the RCS rat (see Wang S, and others, Investigative ophthalmology & visual science 2008;49:3201-3206; Gamm DM, and others, Wang S, Lu B, et al. PLoS One 2007;2:e338). Unfortunately, the fetal origin of these cells presents an obstacle, because such cells are not readily available and come from aborted fetuses.
To overcome such obstacles, Wang and his colleagues assessed the ability of a stable neural progenitor cell line (iNPCs) derived from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) to preserve vision after sub-retinal injection into RCS rats (Sareen D, and others, J Comp Neurol 2014;522:2707-2728). A report in the journal Stem Cells by Wang and others establishes that iNPC injection leads to the reversal of AMD-related symptoms, the preservation of visual function, and may represent a patient-specific therapeutic option (Tsai Y, and others, Stem Cells 2015;33:2537-2549).
Wang and his others showed that an iNSC-treated eye scored higher in all functional tests used (optokinetic response (OKR), electroretinography (ERG), and luminance threshold responses (LTR)), compared to an untreated eye, in RCS mice at 150 days post-transplant. This improvement nicely correlates with the improved protection of photoreceptors in iNPC-treated eyes, which presented with normal cone morphology and the reversal of disease-associated changes throughout the retina.
So how do iNPCs help preserve the photoreceptors and visual function? Wang and his team found that iNPCs survived up to 130 days in RCS retinas, which when normalized to lifespan, represents around 16 years in humans. Additionally, they discovered that iNPCs were able to migrate to an area between the retinal pigment epithelial and photoreceptor layers. This allows the injection of cells into non-affected neighboring regions of the retina, which will not to worsen any compromised retinal components. iNPCs did, however, continue to express NSC/NPC markers and did not mature neural/retinal markers, suggesting that grafted-iNPCs remained phenotypically uncommitted progenitor cells and did not differentiate towards a retinal phenotype.
Further investigations found that iNPC-treatment reduced levels of toxic undigested bits of the photoreceptor cell membranes. Accumulation of these photoreceptor outer segments (POS) cause the photoreceptors to die off. Typically, the RPE cells goggle up these toxic membrane bits, degrade them, and recycle their components for the photoreceptors. The fact that these POS bits were not accumulating in the retinas of RCS mice suggested to Wang and his colleagues that the grafted-iNPCs restored POS degradation in RCS rats. They subsequently found that iNPCs expressed phagocytosis-related genes and could gobble up and degrade POS in culture. They extended these findings in living creatures by identifying the different stages of POS digestion and even viewed engulfed membranous discs inside the cytoplasm of iNPCs.
Overall, iNPC injection appears to be a safe and effective long-term treatment for Acute Macular Degeneration in the RCS rat preclinical model, and holds great promise for the translation into a patient-specific treatment for the preservation of existing retinal structure and vision during the early stages of AMD in humans. Wang noted that iNPC treatment in this model occurred at later stages of degeneration, which represents a more clinical relevant stage. However, an unstudied possibility is restoring phagocytosis by iNPCs to treat loss of visual acuity early on in the course of the disease.