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Human skin cells may hold key to glaucoma cure

Monday, Mar 21, 2016,13:48 IST By Metrovaartha A A A

Washington | Scientists, including one of Indian-origin, have successfully shown that human skin cells can be turned into neurons that conduct visual information from the eye to the brain, a finding that may lead to new therapies to prevent, or even cure glaucoma.

In addition to glaucoma, a group of degenerative diseases that damage the eye’s optic nerve and can result in vision loss and blindness, the finding has potential implications for treatment of optic-nerve injuries of the types incurred by soldiers in combat or athletes in contact sports. Glaucoma is the most common disease that affects retinal ganglion cells (RGCs), which serve as the connection between the eye and the brain, sending information taken in by the eye to the brain for interpretation.

When these cells are damaged or severed, the brain cannot receive critical information, leading to blindness. Researchers at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) took skin cells biopsied from volunteers with an inherited form of glaucoma and from those without the disease.

They genetically reprogrammed them to become pluripotent stem cells, meaning they are able to differentiate into any cell type in the body. The researchers, including graduate student Akshayalakshmi Sridhar, then directed the stem cells to become RGCs at which point the cells began adopting features specific to RGCs – features that were different in the cells of individuals with glaucoma than in the cells that came from healthy individuals.

Skin cells from individuals with glaucoma are no different from skin cells of those without glaucoma, Jason Meyer, assistant professor of biology at IUPUI. However, when we turned glaucoma patients’ skin cells into stem cells and then into RGCs, the cells became unhealthy and started dying off at a much faster rate than those of healthy individuals, said Meyer.

Now that we have produced cells that develop features of glaucoma in culture dishes, we want to see if compounds we add to these RGCs can slow down the degeneration process or prevent these cells from dying off, he said. In the more distant future, we may be able to use healthy patient cells as substitute cells as we learn how to replace cells lost to the disease, said Meyer.

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