Neural stem cell scientist, Dr. Timothy Blenkinsop has made a game-changing discovery for stem cell transplantation. “Essentially what we’ve been able to show is that theses cells that we have been culturing, when transplanted into the space behind the retina, they can actually survive for at least a month, which means, in theory that using these RPE stem cells (retinal pigment epithelium – a layer of cells behind the retina that are crucial to vision) could eventually become a therapeutic solution to RPE diseases. Any time your RPE dies, whether from injury or disease, vision loss occurs and cell replacement is one of the most promising therapies to prevent and treat visual deficit. This is the whole idea behind stem cells and why they’re so exciting right now. Stem cell research holds the promise of replacing damaged tissue with healthy tissue, thereby restoring lost function. Just the fact that we could potentially be able to take cells from a cadaver and grow them up in a dish and re-transplant them into somebody that needs that tissue is very exciting!”
There were many questions that preceded the experiment. Dr. Blenkinsop explains, “Can we transplant a differentiated cell into the back of the eye and will it stay differentiated and will it stay oriented?” And, he shares, “That’s what we showed. The monolayer of RPE cells that were transplanted from a human cadaver into a large eye animal model, the rabbit, survived and maintained their polarity.” In addition to the cells remaining stable, Blenkinsop’s team was also concerned about an immunological reaction. Will the cells be attacked? Will the cells maintain their identity? But, for a month the cells stayed put.
The study was not without caveats, but Tim is confident that this is a major move forward in transplanting and regenerating tissue in vivo. And, this publication is very likely to have a high impact. The eye is at the forefront of stem cell transplantation. It’s the most accessible portion of the central nervous system. Timothy explains, “It’s the pioneer spot for this type of research.” If there is progress made here, it is possible that there will be translatable ideas that can aid in the cures for other diseased areas of the central nervous system.
Published in Stem Cell Reports, part of the Cell Journal group, and the flagship journal for ISSCR the leading for stem cell researchers worldwide, the full report can be read here. Dr. Blenkinsop, collaborating with Dr. Boris Stanzel and his group at the Bonn University Hospital in Bonn, Germany, flew to Germany and assisted in the implantation surgery. He has been with the Neural Stem Cell Institute for five years under the leadership of MacArthur Genius Award Recipient, Dr. Sally Temple. Originally from the Midwest, Dr. Blenkinsop recounts that as a young person he dreamt of doing experiments that could help people. After his brother lost his sight in a motorcycle accident, he decided to devote himself to eye research. With great contentment from this breakthrough, he admits, “I didn’t think it was possible.”