Lab-grown RPE cells promise to cure age-related blindness

Retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells grown on 3D nano scaffolds have the potential to treat age-related macular degeneration, a disease that is making millions of humans blind as they age.
Rupendra Brahambhatt
Human eye

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is one of the most common causes of poor eyesight, blurred vision, and blindness in middle and old-age individuals. A team of scientists at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) has figured out a way to treat this condition using cultured retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells. 

In their latest study, the ARU team demonstrated a method that allowed them to grow RPE cells on 3D nano scaffolds made of thin nanofibers that can be arranged in any orientation and replicate nerve fibers' arrangement.

In our eyes, RPE cells are located beneath the retina's photoreceptors (rods and cones). They protect and maintain the health of our retina by regulating the amount of light and essential nutrients that enter it. 

However, in the case of AMD, the quantity of RPE cells diminishes as we age, causing the retina to lose its strength and progressively resulting in vision impairment

The study authors suggest that AMD can be treated by transplanting cultured RPE cells into the affected eye. Although scientists have also cultured the cells in the past, many of those efforts failed to produce long-lasting viable RPE cells.

Thanks to their novel nano scaffold, the RPE cells cultured using their technique have the potential to remain usable and operational for 150 days.

Producing RPE cells on 3D nano scaffolds

Lab-grown RPE cells promise to cure age-related blindness
A diagram depicting the scaffold arrangement.

The biggest challenge with RPE cultures is biocompatibility. Inside our eyes, Bruch’s membrane’s extracellular matrix supplies essential ingredients to RPE cells and aids their growth. 

However, creating a similar support system to culture RPE cells outside the eyes is difficult. To overcome this issue, the researchers developed a 3D nano scaffold using polyacrylonitrile (PAN), a non-degradable polymer often used as an alternative to wool. PAN is used to manufacture carpets, blankets, and various other textile products made of synthetic fibers.   

They employed electrospinning technology to fabricate the scaffold. This approach involves using a high-voltage electric field to make charged threads out of a polymer solution, then using the lines to produce micro or nanometer-scale fibers.  

The scaffold is also composed of aliphatic diamine (a colorless moisture-absorbing chemical) and comes treated with fluocinolone acetonide (FA). According to the researchers, FA works as an anti-inflammatory agent; it increases the scaffold's biocompatibility and makes the RPE cells more stress resistant. 

“We have demonstrated, for the first time, that nanofibre scaffolds treated with the anti-inflammatory substance such as FA can enhance the growth, differentiation, and functionality of ARPE-19 cells,” the researcher note

“This system shows great potential for development as a substitute Bruch’s membrane, providing a synthetic, non-toxic, biostable support for transplantation of the retinal pigment epithelial cells,” Barbara Pierscionek, one of the study authors and the Deputy Dean at ARU’s research and innovation department, added.

Cultured RPE cells can illuminate the lives of millions

According to CDC, nearly 20 million Americans are currently living with AMD, and 1.49 million of these patients are on the verge of becoming blind. Another shocking report estimates that by 2050, there will be 77 million AMD patients in Europe.

Unfortunately, the disease has no cure, and available treatment options can only limit its progression and symptoms. Health experts warn that if you are 50 years or older and you consume alcohol and food items rich in saturated fats, then you have a very high chance of developing the condition.

Although Professor Pierscionekplan and her team need to conduct more tests to ensure the biocompatibility of their nano scaffold further, undoubtedly, the current study unveils an approach that holds the promise of helping millions of individuals afflicted with AMD and those who may encounter the condition in the future.

The study is published in the journal Materials & Design.

Study Abstract:

Engineered tissue currently lacks requisite capacity to sustain cell viability and functionality. Here we demonstrate that human RPE cell lines (ARPE-19) can be cultured on ultrathin suspended electrospun nanofibre scaffolds (ENS) composed of hydrophobic polymer polyacrylonitrile (PAN) and a water-soluble aliphatic diamine, without (untreated) or with (treated) fluocinolone acetonide (FA). Cells survived and retained their characteristic morphology for up to 150 days with FA-treated ENS. They manifested a morphological epithelial phenotype with expression of biomarkers critical for maintaining retinal physiological characteristics. This novel technique for producing culture substrates provides suitable hydrophilicity and a protective environment for prolonged RPE culture and has immense potential for subretinal transplantation. The findings indicate that FA-treated ENS is an excellent matrix for retaining the differentiated and epithelial phenotype.

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