Japanese researchers have succeeded in persuading mouse stem cells to grow into a synthetic retina autonomously.
After adding various nutrients, they say they observed the stem cells forming into an 'optic cup', a structure that forms a precursor to the retina. The optic cup was about 2 millimeters across, the same size as the eye of a newborn mouse.
Surprisingly, the cells achieved this spontaneously - without the researchers needing to manipulate them directly - with the proto-retina beginning to form within days.
While a US team recently announced that it had managed to create retinal tissue from human stem cells, this involved detailed engineering.
"What we’ve been able to do in this study is resolve a nearly century-old problem in embryology, by showing that retinal precursors have the inherent ability to give rise to the complex structure of the optic cup,” says Yoshiki Sasai of the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe.
"It’s exciting to think that we are now well on the way to becoming able to generate not only differentiated cell types, but organized tissues from ES and iPS cells, which may open new avenues toward applications in regenerative medicine."
The breakthrough has important implications for the treatment of retinal degenerative disorders, raising the possibility of transplanting lab-grown retinas for patients suffering from conditions such as retinitis pigmentosa. Around 100,000 people suffer from retinitis pigmentosa in the US alone.