Year 2

It is estimated that by 2020, over 450,000 Californians will suffer from vision loss or blindness due to the age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the most common cause of retinal degeneration in the elderly. A layer of cells at the back of the eye called the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE), provides support, protection, and nutrition to the light sensitive retina, and cooperates with other retinal cells to maintain normal visual function. The dysfunction and/or loss of these RPE cells play a critical role in the development of dry AMD, the most common form of that disease. RPE cells derived from human ES cells (hES-RPE) are a potentially unlimited resource for cell replacement therapy.

During this grant period we were able to develop methods to reproducibly derive RPE cells from established human ES (hES) cell lines.

Normal RPE cells have a polarized appearance, meaning that they have specialized appearances and functions on the top (retinal facing) and bottom of the cells. We were then able to induce the hES-derived RPE to develop a polarized appearance very similar to that found in the normal eye. These cells had specialized characteristics that were remarkable similar to normal RPE and showed ability to function like normal RPE cells. We then developed sheets of hES-derived RPE on substrates that could be used for surgical implantation into animal eyes.

We then performed studies to establish appropriate animal models in which to test the ability of hES-derived RPE to prevent or slow retinal degeneration in animal models that have some features of human AMD. We were not able to use standard mouse models of AMD because mouse eyes are too small to perform the surgical implantation of polarized RPE. We first looked at a rabbit model of RPE degeneration induced by a toxin (sodium iodate). We were able to establish reproducible RPE degeneration in these animals but whenever we tried to implant hES-derived RPE under the retinas of these animals, the RPE cells did not survive. We believe that the toxin that was used to induce this model was being taken up by the transplanted cells resulting in their death. We then tested a genetic model of retinal degeneration in rats (RCS rat). We were able to demonstrate reproducible retinal degeneration in these animals. When we transplanted hES-derived RPE under the retinas of these animals, we were able to show that the RPE were indeed human in origin and that they were able to survive for at least several weeks after transplantation. Importantly, we were able to show that in the areas where hES-derived RPE were transplanted, there was less retinal degeneration than in the areas in which there was no transplantation or “sham” transplantation.

Thus, in conclusion, we were able to show (1) the reproducible culture of RPE cells from human ES cell lines, (2) that these hES-derived RPE had the appearance and functional characterisitics of human RPE and could be grown on substrates as sheets or polarized cells, and (3) that when these sheets of polarized hES-derived RPE were implanted under the retinal of rats with retinal degeneration, that they were able to survive and showed the ability to slow the progression of retinal degeneration in these animals.

The results of this study suggest that hES cells may be an unlimited source of RPE cells suitable for transplantation into eyes with retinal degeneration and that subretinal implantation of polarized hES-derived RPE may represent a novel therapy for dry AMD.