Update on First Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell Clinical Trial

Masayo Takahashi, an ophthalmologist at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology (CDB) in Kobe, Japan, has pioneered the use of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) to treat patients with degenerative retinal diseases.

Takahashi isolated skin cells from her patients, and then had them reprogrammed into iPSCs in the laboratory through a combination of genetic engineering and cell culture techniques. These iPSCs have many similarities with embryonic stem cells, including pluripotency, which is the potential to differentiate into any adult cell type.

Once induced pluripotent stem cell lines were established from her patient’s skin cells, they had their genomes sequenced for safety purposes, and then differentiated into retinal pigmented epithelial (RPE) cells. RPE cells lie beneath the neural retina and support the photoreceptors that respond to light. When the RPE cells die off, the photoreceptors also begin to die.

Takahashi watched the transplantation of the RPE cells that she had grown in the laboratory into the back of a woman’s damaged retina. This transplant would constitute the first test of the therapeutic potential of iPSCs in people. Takahashi described the transplant as “like a sacred hour.”

Takahashi has collaborated with Shinya Yamanaka, the discoverer of iPSC technology. She devised ways to convert the iPS cells into sheets of RPE cells. She then tested the resulting cells in mice and monkeys, jumped the various regulatory loops, recruited patients for her clinical trial, and practiced growing cells from those patients. Finally, she was ready to try the transplants in people with a common condition called age-related macular degeneration, in which wayward blood vessels destroy photoreceptors and vision. The transplants are meant to cover the retina, patch up the epithelial layer and support the remaining photoreceptors. Watching the procedure, “I could feel the tension of the surgeon,” Takahashi said.

This transplant surgery occurred approximately a year ago. Some new data on this patient is available.

As of 6 months after the transplant, the procedure appears to be safe. The one-year safety report should appear soon. Prior to the transplant, the patient was a series of 18 anti-vascular endothelial growth factor (anti-VEGF) ocular injections for both eyes to cope with the constant recurrence of the disease. However, data presented by Dr. Takahashi showed that the patient had subretinal fibrotic tissue removed during the transplant surgery in order to make room for the RPE cells. Once the RPE cells were implanted, the patient experienced no recurrence of neovascularization at the 6-month point. This is significant because she has not had any other anti-VEGF injections since the transplant. Her visual acuity was stabilized and there have been no safety related concerns to date.

I must grant that this is only one patient, but so far, these results look, at least hopeful. Hopefully other patients will be treated in this trial, and hopefully, they will experience the same success that the first patient is enjoying. We also hope and pray that the first patient will continue to experience relief from her retinal degeneration.

As to the treatment of the second patient of this trial, Takahashi has hit a snag. Some mutations were detected in the iPS cell-derived RPE cells prepared for the second patient. No one knows if these mutations make these cells dangerous to implant. Regulatory guidelines, at this point, are also no help. Apparently, the cells have three single-nucleotide change and three copy-number changes that are present in the RPE cells that were not detectable in the patient’s original skin fibroblasts. The copy-number changes were, in all cases, single-gene deletions. One of the single-nucleotide changes is listed in a database of cancer somatic mutations, but only linked to a single cancer. Further evaluation of these mutations shows that they were not in “driver genes for tumor formation,” according to Dr. Takahashi.

Tumorigenicity tests in laboratory animals has established that the RPE cells are safe. Remember that the presence of a mutation does not necessarily mean that these RPE cells can be tumorigenic.

However, Takahashi has still decided to not transplant these cells into the second patients. Part of the reason is caution, but the other reason is compliance with new Japanese law on Regenerative Medicine, which became effective after iPS trial was begun. This law, however, does not specify how safe a cell line has to be before it can be transplanted into a patient.

RIKEN’s decision to halt the trial is probably a good idea. After all, this is the first trial with iPSCs and it is important to get it right. Even though the RPE cells were widely thought to be safe to use, Takahashi decided not to implant another patient with RPEs derived from their own cells. Instead, they decided to use RPEs made from donated iPSC lines. Therefore, Takahashi is in discussions government officials to determine how this change of focus for the trial affects their compliance with Japanese law.

Frankly, this might be a very savvy move on Takahashi’s part. As Peter Karagiannis, a spokesperson for the Center for iPS Cell Research and Application, noted: “As of now, autologous would not be a feasible way of providing wide-level clinical therapy. At the experimental level it’s fine, but if it’s going to be mass-produced or industrialized, it has to be allogeneic.”

Therefore, the RIKEN institute is moving forward with allogeneic iPSC-derived RPEs. RIKEN will work in collaboration with the Center for iPS Cell Research and Application (CiRA) in Kyoto, Japan, which has several well characterized, partially-matched lines whose safety profiles have been established by strict, rigorous safety testing methods. However, immunological rejection remains a concern, even if these cells are transplanted into an isolated tissue like the eye where to immune system typically is not allowed. The simple fact is that no one knows if the cells will be rejected until they are used in the trial.

An additional concern is that CiRA has not typed its cells for minor histocompatibility antigens, which can cause T cell–mediated transplant rejection.

Nevertheless, Takahashi and her team deserve a good deal of credit for their work and vigilance.

Stem Cells Preserve Vision in an AMD-Like Model

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.

Differential Immunogenicity of Cells Derived from Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells

Induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) technology has raised the possibility that patient-specific pluripotent stem cells may become a renewable source of a patient’s own cells for regenerative therapy without the concern of immune rejection. However, the immunogenicity of autologous human iPSC (hiPSC)-derived cells is not well understood.

Using a humanized mouse model (denoted Hu-mice) with a functional human immune system, Yang Xu and his colleagues from UC San Diego has shown that most teratomas or tumors formed by human iPSCs were readily recognized by immune cells and rejected. However, when these human iPSCs were differentiated into smooth muscle cells or retinal pigmented epithelial cells, the results were rather different. Human iPSC-derived smooth muscle cells appear to be highly immunogenic, but human iPSC-derived retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells are tolerated by the immune system, even when transplanted outside the eye.


When Xu and others examined these results more closely, they discovered that this differential immunogenicity is due to the abnormal expression of cell surface proteins in hiPSC-derived Smooth Muscle Cells, but not in hiPSC-derived RPEs.

These findings support the feasibility of developing hiPSC-derived RPEs for treating macular degeneration. They also show that iPSC lines must be individually screened to determine if their derivatives are recognized by the patient’s immune system as foreign.

These results were published in Cell Stem Cell.

Embryonic Stem Cell-Derived Retinal Cells Treat Blindness in Eye Patients

Embryonic stem cells are derived from human embryos, can only grow in culture indefinitely, and have the ability to potentially differentiate into any adult cell type in the human body.  Because cell and tissues made from embryonic stem cells bear the same tissue types as the embryos from which they were derived, they will be rejected by the immune system patient.  However, there are sites in our bodies were the immune system does not go, and that includes the central nervous system and the eyes.  This is the reason why clinical trials with embryonic stem cell-derived cells have focused, to date, on spinal cord injuries and eye diseases.

Several clinical trials have examined the ability of retinal pigmented epithelial (RPE) cells made from embryonic stem cells to treat patients with dry macular degeneration or an inherited eye disease called Stargardt’s disease.  Data from these trials has been reported in an article in the medical journal The Lancet, and accordingly, none of the treated patients showed tumor formation or immunological rejection of the implants and, most impressively perhaps, partial blindness was reversed in about half of the eyes that received transplants.

The results might re-energize the quest to harness embryonic stem cells for human medicine.  Dr. Anthony Atala of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine called the work “a major accomplishment” in an accompanying commentary on the article.

RPE cells lie just behind the photoreceptor cells in the retina of our eyes.  Photoreceptors have their ends hurried in the RPE layer.  This arrangement exists for a very good reason; the photoreceptors are exposed to high intensities of light and they suffer respectable amounts of oxidative damage.  The components of the photoreceptors cells are made in the very lowest parts of the RPEs and then are eventually pushed to the ends of the cells.  At the end of the photoreceptor cells, the RPEs relieve the photoreceptors of their photodamaged parts and gobble them down, and recycle the cellular components.  Thus, RPE cells serve a photoreceptor cell repair and service cells.  If the RPE cells begin to die, the photoreceptors are not long the this work either.

In the case of dry macular degeneration, which accounts for 90 percent of diagnosed cases of macular degeneration, the light-sensitive photoreceptor cells of the macula (the portion of the retina were the day vision is the sharpest) slowly break down. Damage to the macula causes blurring or spotty loss of central vision and yellowish cellular deposits called drusen (extracellular waste products from metabolism) form under the retina between the retinal pigmented epithelium (RPE) layer and a basement membrane called Bruch’s membrane, that supports the retina. An increase in the size and number of drusen is associated with the death of RPE and, consequently, photoreceptor cells, and is sometimes the first sign of dry macular degeneration.

Medical illustration of dry macular degeneration

Mutations in several genes have been identified in families with dry macular degeneration that increase the risk for dry macular degeneration.  These include the SERPING1 gene, those genes that encode the complement system proteins  factor H (CFH), factor B (CFB) and factor 3, and fibulin-5.  Additionally, some environmental and behavioral factors also influence the risk a person will develop macular degeneration.  These include smoking, exposure to blue light, ingestion of a high-fat diet, elevated blood pressure and serum cholesterol levels, and low vitamin D levels.

Stargardt’s disease is an inherited, juvenile form of macular degeneration that is caused by mutations in the ABCR gene.  The protein encoded by this gene is a waste metabolite transporter, and defects in this protein cause the build up of a toxic metabolite called lipofuscin in the RPE cells, which leads to their demise and the death of the photoreceptors.

In this study, the main goal was to assess the safety of the transplanted cells. The study “provides the first evidence, in humans with any disease, of the long-term safety and possible biologic activity” of cells derived from embryos, said co-author Dr. Robert Lanza, chief scientific officer of Advanced Cell Technology, which produced the cells and funded the study.

Nine patients with Stargardt’s disease and nine with dry age-related macular degeneration received implants of the retinal cells in one eye. The other eye served as a control.  Four eyes developed cataracts and two became inflamed, probably due to the patients’ age (median: 77) or the use of immune-supressing transplant drugs.

The implanted RPE cells survived in all 18 patients, most of whose vision improved.  In those with macular degeneration, treated eyes saw a median of 14 additional letters on a standard eye chart a year after receiving the cells, with one patient gaining 19 letters. The untreated eyes got worse, overall. The Stargardt’s patients had similar results.

In real-life terms, patients who couldn’t see objects under 12 feet (4 meters) tall can now see normal-size adults.

The vision of one 75-year old rancher who was blind in the treated eye (20/400) improved to 20/40, enough to ride horses again, Lanza said.  Others became able to use computers, read watches, go to the mall or travel to the airport alone for the first time in years.

While calling the results “encouraging,” stem cell expert Dusko Ilic of Kings College London, who was not involved in the work, warned that even if the larger clinical trial planned for later this year is also successful, “it will take years before the treatment becomes available.”

Other cell types can also form RPE cells and these include induced pluripotent stem cells, mesenchymal stem cells from fat (Ophthalmic Res. 2012;48 Suppl 1:1-5), adult retinal stem cells (Pigment Cell Melanoma Res. 2011 Feb;24(1):233-40), and iris pigmented epithelial cells (Prog Retin Eye Res. 2007 May;26(3):302-21).  We do not need to destroy embryos to treat eye diseases with stem cells.

The First Patient Treated with iPSC-Derived Cells

Nature News has reported that a Japanese patient was received the first treatment derived from induced pluripotent stem cells.

Ophthalmologist Masayo Takahashi from the Riken Center for Developmental Biology and her team used genetic engineering techniques to reprogram skin fibroblasts from this patient into induced pluripotent stem cells. These cultured iPSCs were then differentiated into retinal pigment epithelium cells. Takahashi’s colleagues, led by Yasuo Kurimoto at Kobe City Medical Center General Hospital, then implanted those retinal pigment epithelium cells into the retina of this female patient, who suffers from age-related macular degeneration.

It is unlikely that this procedure will restore the woman’s vision. However, because age-related macular degeneration is a progressive process, Takahashi and her research team will be examining if this procedure prevents further deterioration of her sight. Takahashi’s Riken team has extensively tested this procedure in laboratory animals and recently received human trial clearance. Takahashi’s team will also be looking particularly hard at the side effects of this procedure; such as immune reaction or cancerous growth.

“We’ve taken a momentous first step toward regenerative medicine using iPS cells,” Takahashi says in a statement, according to Nature News. “With this as a starting point, I definitely want to bring [iPS cell-based regenerative medicine] to as many people as possible.”

Treating Age-Related Blindness with a Stem Cell Replacement Method

A collaboration between German and American scientists in New York City has resulted in the invention of a new method for transplanting stem cells into the eyes of patients who suffer from age-related macular degeneration, which is the most frequent cause of blindness. In an animal test, the implanted stem cells survived in the eyes of rabbits for several weeks.

Approximately 4.5 millino people in Germany suffer from age-related macular degeneration (AMD), which causes gradual loss of visual acuity and affects the ability to read, drive a car or do fine work. The center of the vision field becomes blurry as though covered by a veil. This vision loss is a consequence of the death of cells in the retinal pigment epithelium or RPE, which lies are the back of the eye, underneath the neural retina.

Inflammation within the RPE causes AMD. Increased inflammation prevents efficient recycling of metabolic waste products, and the build-up of toxic wastes causes RPE die off. Without the RPE, the photoreceptors in front of the RPE cells that also depend on the RPE to repair the damage suffered from continuous light exposure, begin to die off too.


Retinal Pigmented Epithelium

Presently no cure exists for AMD, but scientists at Bonn University, in the Department of Ophthalmology and New York City have tested a new procedure that replaces damaged RPE cells.

In the present experiment, RPE cells made from human stem cells were successfully implanted into the retinas of rabbits.

Boris V. Stanzel, the lead author of this work, said, “These cells have now been used for the first time in research for transplantation purposes.”

The adult RPE stem cells were characterized by Timothy Blenkinsop and his colleagues at the Neural Stem Cell Institute in New York City. Blenkinsop designed methods to isolate and grow these cells. He also flew to Germany to assist Dr. Stanzel with the transplantation experiments.  Blenkinsop obtained his RPE cells from human cadavers, and he grew them on polyester matrices.

These experiments demonstrate that RPE cells obtained from adult stem cells can replace cells destroyed by AMD. This newly developed transplantation method makes it possible to test which stem cells lines are most suitable for transplantation into the eye.

Japanese first Ever Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell Clinical Trial Given the Green Light

The first clinical trial that utilizes induced pluripotent stem cells has been given a green light. For this clinical trial six patients who suffer from age-related macular degeneration will donate skin biopsies and the cells from these skin biopsies will be used to generate induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells in the laboratory. After those iPS cell lines are screened for safety (normal numbers of chromosomes, no mutations in critical genes, etc.), they will be differentiated into retinal cells. The retinal cells will be transplanted into the retinas of these six patients.

This clinical trial was approved by Japan Health Minister Norihisa Tamura and it will be next summer by Masayo Takahashi. Dr. Takahashi is a retinal regeneration expert and a colleague of the man who first developed iPS cells, Shinya Yamanaka. Yamanaka won the Nobel Prize for his discovery of iPSCs last year. In fact, this clinical trial epitomizes, in the eyes of many, the determination of Japanese scientists and politicians to dominate the iPS cell field. This national ambition kicked into high gear after Yamanaka shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine last October for his iPS cell work.

Norhisa Tamura, Japanese Minister of Health
Norihisa Tamura, Japanese Minister of Health
Masayo Takahashi, MD, PhD, Riken Center for Developmental Biology.
Masayo Takahashi, MD, PhD, Riken Center for Developmental Biology.

“If things continue this way, this will be the first in-clinic study in iPS cell technology,” says Doug Sipp of the Riken Center for Developmental Biology (CDB). The CDB, Takahashi’s institute, will co-run the trial with Kobe’s Institute for Biomedical Research and Innovation. “It’s exciting.”

Sipp, however, also noted that this move has not surprised anyone in Japan, since the Japanese stem cell community has heavily invested in iPS cells. Nevertheless, since Takahashi yet to formally publish the details of her trial, some have questioned whether she is actually ready to move forward. IPS cells are viewed as the perfect compromise for regenerative medicine. They are adult, and therefore do not require the destruction of human embryos for their establishment, and they are also pluripotent like an embryonic cell, which makes them relatively powerful sources for regenerative medicine.

Critics, however, warn that iPS cells were only discovered in 2007. To date, they remain difficult to create and culture and they can become tumorous in many hands. However, many labs have a great deal of expertise and skill when it comes to handling and deriving iPS cells. These labs derive and culture iPS cells routinely. In fact, Sipp notes that Riken’s CDB alone has produced world-class work with all kinds of stem cells, including embryonic stem (ES) cells, which are the models for iPS cells.

Additionally, Sipp and others point out that a scientist who has collaborated with Takahashi in the past, Riken’s Yoshiki Sasai, is doing groundbreaking work with ES cells and the eye. The British journal Nature has called Sasai “The Brainmaker,” and has said that his research is “wowing” the world.

The Japanese government has also soundly funded Takahashi’s trail. The health ministry’s recent stimulus plan set aside more money for stem cells (in particular iPS cells) than anything else. According to the journal Nature, the Japanese government sequestered 21.4 billion yen ($215 million) for stem cell research. Of this pot of money, the health ministry provided 700 million yen ($7 million) for a cell-processing center to support Takahashi before her trial was even approved. Two centers devoted to iPS cells are slated to be built with 2.2 billion yen ($22 million). The AFP reports the prime minister has set aside a breathtaking $1.18 billion, for iPS-cell work. Yamanaka has told Nature that the Japanese government seems to be “telling us to rush iPS cell-related technologies to patients as quickly as possible.”

Robert Lanza, CSO of Advanced Cell Technology, might once have been the logical bet to be first to the clinic with iPS cells. Unlike Takahashi, he has three ES cell trials under his belt, and has started talks with the FDA about transplanting iPS cell-derived platelets, but his iPS proposal is taking longer. Lanza bitterly noted, not without justification, “We don’t have the prime minister and emperor to speed things along for us.”

Since 2007, the year that Yamanaka reported the derivation of iPS cells from adult cells, Japan has focused on iPS cells. Yamanaka showed that increasing the expression of four genes could change limited adult human cells into potent, embryonic-like cells. “At Yamanaka’s institute alone, there are at least 20 teams focusing on iPS cells now,” Sipp says. There are teams at Riken, the Universities of Tokyo and Keio, and others. “A lot is happening here.” In fact, the Center for IPS Cell Research and Application was created expressly for Yamanaka.

Takahashi has reported part of the design of her clinical trial at scientific meetings. She told the International Society for Stem Cell Research in June 2012 she had created iPS-cell derived retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells for transplantation. RPE cells lie behind the photoreceptors in the retina, and the photoreceptors have their ends embedded into the RPE. The RPE cells replenish and nourish the photoreceptors, and without the RPE cells, the photoreceptors die from the damage incurred by exposure to light.

Retinal Pigmented Epithelium

Death of the RPE cells cause eventual death of photoreceptors and that results in blindness. At the International Society for Stem Cell Research conference, Takahashi reported her that her iPS cell-derived RPEs possess proper structure and gene expression. They also do not produce tumors when transplanted into mice, and survive at least six months when transplanted into the retinas of monkeys. The vision of these animals, however, was not tested. She did note that some AMD patients’ sight improves when RPE cells are moved from the eye’s periphery to its center.

Retinal pigment epithelial cells derived from iPS cells.
Retinal pigment epithelial cells derived from iPS cells.

Takahashi has published many iPS and ES cell papers. These papers include two papers with Yamanaka: one on creating retinal cells from iPS cells, and one on creating safe iPS cells. However she has not published trial details, which is not required, but such a landmark trial should be transparent, as argued by many stem cell experts.

Still, according to Sipp, Takahashi has submitted a relevant paper to a top journal for review, which shows that this clinical trial is purely a determination of the safety of the procedure. Lanza has reported his trials in the journal The Lancet, and similar, but small, trials are doing well. His three ES cell trials treated Stargardt’s macular dystrophy and Age-related Macular Degeneration. Lanza’s trial, however, treated “dry” macular degeneration, while Takahashi’s trial will treat “wet” Age-related Macular Degeneration, which is good news for Takahashi.

Paul Knoepfler, a UC Davis stem cell scientist who runs a widely read blog site, has written that the ministry overseeing Takahashi’s trial will reportedly monitor some key factors: gene sequencing and tumorigenicity. But Knoepfler, like others, would like to see more details.

The Japanese Health Ministry and the US FDA recently agreed to devise a joint regulatory framework for retinal iPS cell clinical trials, which will come on line 2015. Takahashi’s trial is set for 2014.

An Easy Way to Make Retinal Pigment Epithelium from Pluripotent Stem Cells

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.

Differentiation of hPSCs into RPE. (A): Schematic view of the differentiation process. (B): Kinetics of marker expression of differentiating hESCs and hiPSCs as measured by quantitative real-time polymerase chain reaction. d1 denotes the time at which the cells were transferred to DM. Error bars represent standard deviation of biological replicates. (C): Morphology of hPSCs after 50 days in DM, with arrowheads indicating representative pigmented colonies. Scale bar = 5 mm. (D, E): Flow cytometric analysis of the expression of RPE65 by differentiating hPSCs after 50 days in DM. The profile of cells stained with the anti-RPE65 antibody is shown in red, and the isotype control is displayed in black. Only a minority of cells were RPE65-positive, which is in accordance with the limited number of pigmented colonies obtained in (C). Abbreviations: d, day of the experiment; DM, differentiation medium; hESC, human embryonic stem cell; hiPSC, human induced pluripotent stem cell; hPSC, human pluripotent stem cell; P1, first passage; P2, second passage; RPE, retinal pigment epithelium; w, week.
Differentiation of hPSCs into RPE. (A): Schematic view of the differentiation process. (B): Kinetics of marker expression of differentiating hESCs and hiPSCs as measured by quantitative real-time polymerase chain reaction. d1 denotes the time at which the cells were transferred to DM. Error bars represent standard deviation of biological replicates. (C): Morphology of hPSCs after 50 days in DM, with arrowheads indicating representative pigmented colonies. Scale bar = 5 mm. (D, E): Flow cytometric analysis of the expression of RPE65 by differentiating hPSCs after 50 days in DM. The profile of cells stained with the anti-RPE65 antibody is shown in red, and the isotype control is displayed in black. Only a minority of cells were RPE65-positive, which is in accordance with the limited number of pigmented colonies obtained in (C). Abbreviations: d, day of the experiment; DM, differentiation medium; hESC, human embryonic stem cell; hiPSC, human induced pluripotent stem cell; hPSC, human pluripotent stem cell; P1, first passage; P2, second passage; RPE, retinal pigment epithelium; w, week.

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.

Transplantation of human pluripotent stem cell (hPSC)-RPE cells into the subretinal space of albinos NOD-scid mice. (A): Fundus photograph of an injected eye, 1 week post-transplantation. Note the numerous pigmented clusters formed by the transplanted hPSC-RPE cells. (B): Confocal micrograph showing the presence of rhodopsin-positive material (yellow arrows) within the cell membrane of carboxyfluorescein diacetate succinimidyl ester-labeled hPSC-RPE cells, 1 week after subretinal injection. Scale bars = 10 μm. Abbreviations: DAPI, 4′,6-diamidino-2-phenylindole; ONL, outer nuclear layer; OS, outer segment; RPE, retinal pigment epithelium.
Transplantation of human pluripotent stem cell (hPSC)-RPE cells into the subretinal space of albinos NOD-scid mice. (A): Fundus photograph of an injected eye, 1 week post-transplantation. Note the numerous pigmented clusters formed by the transplanted hPSC-RPE cells. (B): Confocal micrograph showing the presence of rhodopsin-positive material (yellow arrows) within the cell membrane of carboxyfluorescein diacetate succinimidyl ester-labeled hPSC-RPE cells, 1 week after subretinal injection. Scale bars = 10 μm. Abbreviations: DAPI, 4′,6-diamidino-2-phenylindole; ONL, outer nuclear layer; OS, outer segment; RPE, retinal pigment epithelium.

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.

Researchers Find a Way to Derive Sustainable Retinal Cells from Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells

Researchers from the laboratory of Jason S. Meyer have designed a protocol to generate pigmented retinal cells from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). Induced pluripotent stem cells are made from adult cells by means of genetic engineering techniques that introduce four specific transcription factors into the cells that turn on a variety of genes that dedifferentiate the adult into an embryonic stem cell-like cell. This embryonic stem cell-like cell is an iPSC. Because iPSCs are similar to embryonic stem cells, they can differentiate into any adult cell type.

Last year, a clinical trial that used embryonic stem cells to produce pigmented retinal was published. This trial injected retinal pigmented epithelial cells derived from embryonic stem cells into the retinas of two patients. Both patients suffered from retinal diseases that affected the pigmented retina. Both patients showed eyesight improvements in the injected eye, but one patient showed improvements in both eyes. Therefore, the results of this experiment are largely inconclusively. Also, the derivation of human embryonic stem cells requires the destruction of human embryos, which ends the life of a young human person. Therefore, iPSCs offer a potentially better ethical alternative to embryonic stem cells.

In Meyer’s laboratory, Meyer and his co-workers have discovered have invented a way to differentiate iPSCs from patients into retinal pigmented epithelia (RPE), and photoreceptors (the light-sensitive cells in the retina). When tested in culture, the iPSC-derived RPE cells grew and functioned just as efficiently as RPEs made from more traditional methods.

According to Meyer, assistant professor of biology in the Indiana University School of Medicine Stark Neurosciences Research Institute, “Not only were we able to develop these (hiPSC) cells into retinal cells, but we were able to do so in a system devoid of any animal cells and proteins. Since these kinds of stem cells can be generated from a patient’s own cells, there will be nothing the body will recognize as foreign.”

Meyer also noted that this research should allow scientists to better reproduce these cells because they know exactly what components were included to spur growth and minimize or eliminate any variations. Also, the cells derived from iPSCs function in a very similar fashion to cells derived from human embryonic stem cells, but they are not surrounded by the controversy that accompanies embryonic stem cells or the danger of immune rejection issues because they are derived from individual patients.

Meyer added: “This method could have a considerable impact on the treatment of retinal diseases such as age-related macular degeneration and forms of blindness with hereditary factors. We hope this will help to understand what goes wrong when diseases arise and that we can use this method as platform for the development of new treatments or drug therapies.”

Meyer continued: “We’re talking about bringing cells a significant step closer to clinical use.”

Phase I Study of Embryonic Stem Cell-Derived Retinal Pigment Epithelium Cells Shows Early Signs of Success

Several different diseases cause deterioration of the eye and plunge aging or even young men and women into a life of blindness. Several of these genetic diseases affect the tissues that reside at the back of the eye, which is collectively called the retina. The retina contains two main layers; an inner neural retina and an outer pigmented retina.

The neural retina is filled with photoreceptors and cells that process the outputs from the photoreceptor cells and send them to the brain. The pigmental retina contains the retinal pigmented epithelium, which plays a central role in retinal physiology. The retinal pigmented epithelium or RPE forms the outer blood-retinal barrier and supports the function of the photoreceptors. Many diseases the adversely affect the retina called “retinopathies” involve a disruption of the epithelium’s interactions with the neural retina. Other types of retinopathies are caused by uncontrolled proliferation of the RPE cells.

Transplantation of RPE cells can help treat patients that have various types of retinopathies (see Lund RD et al.,Cloning Stem Cells.2006 Fall;8(3):189-99).  However, embryonic stem cells can be made into copious quantities of RPEs rather easily (Huang Y, Enzmann V, Ildstad ST. Stem Cell Rev. 2011 Jun;7(2):434-45).  Therefore, it was only a matter of time before clinical trials were instigated with embryonic stem cell-derived RPEs.

In recent edition of the journal The Lancet, Steven Schwartz and colleagues have reported the first clinical results from patients treated with embryonic stem cell-derived RPEs.  A patient with “Stargardt’s macular dystrophy,” which is the most common form of pediatric macular degeneration, and a patient with dry age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in the developed world, each received a subretinal injection of RPEs derived from embryonic stem cells (ESCs).  Both of these disorders are not treatable at present, but both also result from degeneration of the RPE.  Loss of RPE cells causes photoreceptor loss and progressive vision deficiency.

Schwartz and colleagues differentiated the hESCs into RPE cultures that showed greater than 99% purity.  Then they injected 50,000 RPE cells into the subretinal space of one eye in each patient. Each patient received anti-rejection drugs (low-dose tacrolimus and mycophenolate mofetil) just in case the immune system tried to attack the transplanted RPE cells.

There results are hopeful, since, after 4 months, both patients show no sign of retinal detachment, hyperproliferation, abnormal growths, intraocular inflammation, or teratoma formation.  Anatomical evidence of the injected cells was difficult to confirm in the patient with age-related macular degeneration, but was present in the patient with Stargardt’s macular dystrophy.

Both patients showed some visual improvements.  The patient who suffers from age-related macular degeneration improved in visual acuity, since she was able to recognize 28 letters in a visual acuity chart, whereas before he procedure, she was able to identify only 28 (improvement from 20/500 vision to 20/320).  The patient with Stargardt’s macular dystrophy went from counting fingers and seeing only one letter in the eye chart by week 2, and to a stable level of five letters (20/800) after 4 weeks.  This patient also showed subjective improvement in color vision, contrast, and dark adaptation in the treated eye.

These results are highly preliminary and the improvements are slight, but the progressive nature of these eye diseases suggests that the injections largely worked.  Before we can crack our knuckles for joy, we will need to see improvements with more than two patients.  But the fact that the treated eye showed improvements not seen in the untreated eye is highly suggestive that the transplanted RPEs are improving the health of the photoreceptors in the neural retina.  The eye is an ideal place to do such research because it is one place in the body that is not regularly patrolled by the immune system, and foreign cells placed in the eye tend to receive far less scrutiny from the immune system than other parts of the body.

I am glad for these patients, but I am troubled by this experiment.  Other types of stem cells can be converted into RPEs (Uygun BE, Sharma N, Yarmush M. Crit Rev Biomed Eng. 2009;37(4-5):355-75.).  Also, there are other stem cells in the eye that, if properly investigated might possess the ability to form RPEs (Bhatia B, et al.,Exp Eye Res. 2011 Dec;93(6):852-61).  Why was this experiment first done with cells that require the death of early human embryos?  The safety concerns with ESCs makes the clinical trial far more expensive and slower.  While the embryos sacrificed to make these RPEs have long since died, the ESC culture is doing some clinical good.  However, how would we feel about cell lines made from children who were murdered by a sadistic scientist?  Would you receive treatments from them given what you know about their origin?  So while this experiment shows hope, it also leads to controversy as well that is not being discussed as deeply as it should.