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New Study Suggests Replacing Damaged Retina Cells By Reprogramming the Müller Glia Could Help Cure Glaucoma

Posted on December 09, 2016 by Glaucoma Research Foundation
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Ever wonder what you have in common with a zebrafish? You might be surprised. Both you and the zebrafish—and in fact all vertebrates—have a certain type of cell in the retina called Müller glia, which stabilizes the environment in and around the retina by surrounding and insulating the retinal neurons during light signaling. 

Müller glia are essentially for recycling important signaling molecules in the retina and actually help light reach the photo-sensitive rods and cones. The major difference is that if the zebrafish suffers damage to the retina, cells from its Müller glia population can reprogram themselves to replace the fish's damaged photoreceptor cells. Now, how does the zebrafish do that, and how can we get that to work in human eyes?

These are vital questions, especially for those dealing with loss of retinal neurons. Because this happens in zebrafish with the same sort of Müller glia cells that appear in people, we know that it might be possible to use the patient's own Müller glia to generate new photoreceptor cells to replace damaged cells. And, if we can do that, we might be able to mitigate, or even reverse, retinal damage from injury or disease.

The Research Has Begun

This ambitious challenge has been taken up by Edward M. Levine, Ph.D. and his team from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. As part of the National Eye Institute's Audacious Goals Initiative, Levine's team is looking for those external and internal factors involved in reprogramming Müller glia cells to give rise to new photoreceptor cells. Because funding only became available as of September of 2016, research has yet to get fully underway. However, here is the Vanderbilt team’s plan:

Test a novel combination of drugs and genetic manipulation to see if Müller glia in mice can be reprogrammed. If they can, the team will investigate what genes are turned on or off in transforming zebrafish and mouse Müller glia.

The team will then look at the role exosomes play in promoting regeneration. These are tiny vesicles secreted from cells that are commonly found in blood and other bodily fluids.. This study will hopefully provide some understanding of how to cellular regeneration could hypothetically work in humans suffering from degenerative diseases such as glaucoma.

Looking Forward

Levine’s work is one of several projects funded by the NEI Audacious Goals Initiative, which has targeted millions of dollars over the next three years to restore vision in patients with damaged retinas. These projects build on progress in the area of neural regeneration, including developments in increasing the regenerative capacity of axons in damaged optic nerves, and identifying factors that either stimulate or inhibit the regeneration of vision-related neurons.

The Audacious Goals program is vital to continued progress in fighting glaucoma-related blindness. Utilizing further work based on studies like Levine's, efforts to reprogram the patient's own Müller glia cells to develop new photoreceptor cells could lead to effective treatments for retinal and optic nerve diseases and injuries. But questions remain: How long will it take, and how far can they get before their funding runs out? Audacious Goals’ funds will promote research but will not be enough to sustain the kind of momentum necessary to make Levine’s and others’ goals a reality for patients and their doctors.

Glaucoma Research Foundation can help. These efforts deserve the kind of funding offered by Glaucoma Research Foundation, and your generous donation to Glaucoma Research Foundation will directly support promising research that will, one day, put an end to glaucoma-related blindness. Make that day happen soon. Donate to Glaucoma Research Foundation today.

Last reviewed on December 12, 2016

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