Stem cell research paves the way for new eye treatments.
Visually impaired people suffering from incurable eye diseases are eagerly awaiting new treatment methods. Many believe that stem cell research may hold the key to new discoveries, and researchers at the University of Tampere have joined forces to make these discoveries happen.
Assistant Professor Heli Skottman of the BioMediTech Institute researches and grows stem cells, while Hannu Uusitalo, professor of ophthalmology, studies chronic degenerative eye diseases, such as age related macular degeneration and congenital retinal disorders.
“The stem cell research Heli is conducting is immensely important to us: it offers a future perspective into the treatment of these diseases,” Uusitalo says.
Stem cells are cells that have the potential to endlessly divide and differentiate into diverse types of tissue specific cells. Stem cells can be harvested from embryos, bone marrow and our organs’ own stem cell populations.
Stem cell-based treatment modalities cannot be used on a large scale yet, but the cells are already being used in drug discovery and disease modelling. Cell models are useful because they enable researchers to understand the progress of diseases, and this in turn aids drug development, for example.
The ophthalmology research group unites expertise on working with patients with the development of stem cell treatments.
“I am not an ophthalmologist, so it is extremely important that we have this close collaboration. It helps us to have a realistic picture of what the possible treatments should be so that they can be used for actual patients,” Skottman says.
Multidisciplinary know-how is being applied in the research of eye diseases. For example, research is being conducted on biomaterials at BioMediTech, and laser technology is being developed at the Optoelectronics Research Centre at Tampere University of Technology.
The eye is so far the only organ to which clinical treatments are being applied using pluripotent stem cells. Treatment trials are currently underway in the United States, Japan and the UK.
The basic idea of cell therapy is that stem cells are transplanted in the impaired organ, where they are expected to start mending the damaged tissue.
“It was both relieving and exciting to learn that the trial treatments did not include any safety concerns,” Uusitalo says.
“When the first clinical trials were conducted with stem cells, many feared that the cells would start to differentiate in an abnormal way. People were expecting cancer or another kind of foreign tissue – for example, bone tissue – to start growing in the eye. However, that did not happen,” Uusitalo explains.
Differentiation means that the stem cells are grown to fulfil the task of a tissue specific cell. In principle, it is possible to use stem cells to produce any human tissue.
Skottman and Uusitalo have tested a safe new way to make stem cells differentiate into retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells. Instead of injecting the cells into the eye, the cells are transplanted in the right place with the help of a sheet of biomaterial.
“I think we are among the global pioneers in using this technique. The cells are grown on biomaterial and transplanted at a stage when they have already differentiated and are fully functional. These cells have differentiated into tissue that closely resembles regular RPE tissue,” Uusitalo says.
“It looks like making these grafts is the right way to progress,” Skottman and Uusitalo agree.
Cells that have been injected into the subretinal space of the eye do not work equally well. Even though the cells can find their destination rather well in healthy tissue, in the “hostile environment” of sick tissue, the cells apparently do not find their proper place or start working in the desired way.
Stem cells open up possibilities for tailored, personalised treatments. A tissue sample is taken from the patient that contains cells which can be programmed into stem cells. The sample can be a small piece of skin, for example. The stem cells are then made to differentiate into eye cells, and they can then be used to study which treatment would best suit the eye disease of the particular patient.
Uusitalo’s and Skottman’s research invests heavily in these kinds of personalised treatments. Besides the stem cell techniques, personalised treatments are also being developed using proteomics (the study of proteins) and medical imaging.
“We can solve the problem of scarce healthcare resources with the help of personalised treatments. The new treatments mean that those resources can be put to the best possible use,” Uusitalo says.
Text: Tiina Lankinen
Photograph: Jonne Renvall