New technique could restore vision in retinal disease

Structure of the eye

Researchers at Université de Montréal have discovered a way to potentially restore vision in patients suffering from degenerative retinal disease.

Published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the research was led by UdeM medical professor Michel Cayouette, Director of Cellular Neurobiology Research at the UdeM-affiliated Montreal Clinical Research Institute.

His research team discovered that cells that lie dormant in the retina (glial cells) can be induced to transform into cells sharing some properties with cone photoreceptors, which allow people to do things like perceive colours, read and drive.

Inherited retinal degenerations are caused by the loss of light-sensitive cells in the retina at the back of the eye. When these cells degenerate due to disease, they are not replaced and the patient suffers vision loss that can progress to total blindness.

Although various approaches such as gene therapy exist that offer hope of slowing or blocking the progression of photoreceptor cell loss, these techniques cannot restore lost cells.

Reactivating dormant cells

In an approach that circumvents the need for transplantation, Cayouette’s team found a way to reactivate dormant cells in the retina and transform them into neural-like cells that could ultimately be used to replace cells lost in retinal degeneration.

“We have identified two genes that, when expressed in these dormant cells called Müller cells, can convert them into retinal neurons,” said the study’s first author Camille Boudreau-Pinsonneault, who recently earned her PhD at UdeM.

“What’s interesting is that these Müller cells are known to reactivate and regenerate retina in fish,” she said. “But in mammals, including humans, they don’t normally do so, not after injury or disease. And we don’t yet fully understand why.”

Building on their success, the scientists now plan to perfect the effectiveness of this technique and find a way to promote full maturation of cells into cone photoreceptors that could restore vision.

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