Newswise — Scientists, under the guidance of Professor Barbara Pierscionek from Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), have achieved a groundbreaking breakthrough by utilizing nanotechnology to construct a 3D 'scaffold' capable of cultivating cells from the retina. This pioneering advancement opens the door to potential revolutionary treatments for a common cause of blindness.

The research team has been focused on developing a technique to grow retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells, which remain in a healthy and viable state for an impressive duration of up to 150 days. RPE cells are situated just outside the neural region of the retina and their impairment can lead to a deterioration of vision. With this exciting advancement in nanotechnology, they have laid the foundation for addressing and potentially curing this vision-threatening condition.

The groundbreaking technology known as 'electrospinning' has been employed for the first time to fabricate a scaffold conducive to the growth of retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells. This pioneering method has the potential to revolutionize the treatment of age-related macular degeneration, one of the most prevalent vision impairments globally.

Remarkably, when the scaffold is treated with a steroid called fluocinolone acetonide, known for its anti-inflammatory properties, it enhances the resilience of the cells, fostering the growth of eye cells. These significant findings hold promising implications for the future development of ocular tissue, paving the way for potential transplantation into the eyes of patients.

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) stands as a prominent cause of blindness in developed nations, and its prevalence is anticipated to surge in the coming years owing to an aging population. According to recent studies, it is predicted that by 2050, around 77 million individuals in Europe alone will suffer from some form of AMD.

The onset of AMD can be attributed to alterations in the Bruch's membrane, a vital support system for the retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells. Additionally, the breakdown of the choriocapillaris, a dense vascular network adjacent to the opposite side of the Bruch's membrane, also contributes to the condition. These intricate interplays between ocular structures underline the complexity of AMD and the urgency for advanced treatments and preventive measures.

The most prevalent cause of sight deterioration in Western populations results from the accumulation of lipid deposits known as drusen, leading to the degeneration of various components within the eye, including the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE), the choriocapillaris, and the outer retina. In contrast, in the developing world, age-related macular degeneration (AMD) tends to be triggered by abnormal growth of blood vessels in the choroid, which then invade the RPE cells, causing hemorrhaging, RPE or retinal detachment, and the formation of scars.

To address sight conditions like AMD effectively, several promising therapeutic options are being explored, with the replacement of RPE cells standing out as one of the most significant. Researchers are diligently working to discover efficient ways to transplant these cells into the eye, offering hope for improved treatments and visual outcomes in the future.

Professor Barbara Pierscionek, the lead author and Deputy Dean (Research and Innovation) at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), expressed the significance of their research findings, which demonstrate, for the first time, the ability of nanofibre scaffolds, treated with the anti-inflammatory substance fluocinolone acetonide, to significantly enhance the growth, differentiation, and functionality of retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells.

In contrast to previous methods of cell growth on flat surfaces, these innovative techniques have proven that RPE cells thrive remarkably well within the three-dimensional environment provided by the scaffolds.

The potential of this system is immense, as it could serve as a synthetic, biostable support akin to Bruch's membrane, offering a viable alternative for the transplantation of RPE cells. Given that pathological changes in Bruch's membrane have been linked to eye diseases like age-related macular degeneration (AMD), this breakthrough presents an exciting opportunity to potentially assist millions of people worldwide with vision impairments.


Journal Link: Materials