Reactivating dormant cells in the retina provides new hope for vision recovery.

There’s new expectation for possibly reestablishing vision in patients experiencing degenerative retinal sickness on account of work by analysts at the Université de Montréal.

The study was led by UdeM medical professor Michel Cayouette, director of cellular neurobiology research at the UdeM-affiliated Montreal Clinical Research Institute. It was published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

His team discovered that glial cells, which are dormant cells in the retina, can be induced to transform into cells that share some properties with cone photoreceptors and enable people to read, drive, and perceive colors.

“We discovered two genes that, when expressed in these dormant cells called Müller cells, can convert them into retinal neurons.”

Author Camille Boudreau-Pinsonneault, who recently earned her Ph.D. at UdeM 

The loss of light-sensitive cells in the retina at the back of the eye is what causes inheritance-related retinal degenerations. When disease causes these cells to degenerate, they are not replaced, resulting in vision loss that can progress to complete blindness.

Even though there are a number of options, like gene therapy, that may be able to slow or stop the loss of photoreceptor cells, these options won’t help patients who are in more advanced stages of the disease because they can’t replace the cells that have been lost.

As a result, regenerative therapies that can restore vision and replace the lost cells must be developed immediately. Utilizing stem cells to generate photoreceptors that could be transplanted into a patient’s eye is one promising option; however, this technology currently faces significant obstacles that impede its implementation in clinical settings.

Cayouette’s team discovered a method to reactivate dormant cells in the retina and transform them into neural-like cells that could eventually be used to replace cells lost in retinal degeneration. This method avoids the need for transplants.

“We have identified two genes that, when expressed in these dormant cells that are called Müller cells, can convert them into retinal neurons,” stated Camille Boudreau-Pinsonneault, the study’s first author and a recent UdeM Ph.D. recipient for her contribution to this development.

“Fascinating that these Müller cells are known to reactivate and recover the retina in fish,” she said. ” However, they rarely do so in mammals, including humans, except in the event of injury or disease. Also, we don’t yet completely grasp the reason why.”

Co-creator Ajay David, a doctoral understudy in Cayouette’s lab, praised “this thrilling development over cell transplantation,” saying “we may one day have the option to exploit the cells that are typically present in the retina and invigorate them to recover retinal cells lost to obsessive circumstances and to reestablish vision.”

Based on their success, the scientists now plan to improve the method’s efficacy and find a way to encourage the complete maturation of cells into cone photoreceptors, which could restore vision.

More information: Camille Boudreau-Pinsonneault et al, Direct neuronal reprogramming by temporal identity factors, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2023). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2122168120

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