Researchers in Japan have grown a retina from mouse embryonic stem cells in a lab, but this isn’t just another incremental advance in tissue engineering. Scientists claim their “retina in a dish” is by no small degree the most complex biological tissue yet engineered.
If the breakthrough can be adapted to work with human cells, it could provide a retina that is safe for transplantation into human eyes, providing a potential cure for many kinds of blindness. That’s still years away, but in the meantime the lab-grown mouse tissue could provide researchers with a wealth of information on eye diseases and potential treatments for them.The tissue developed at Kobe’s RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology is more than just a retina--it’s an entire optic cup, the two-layered organ that is composed of both the retina and an outer layer of pigmented cells that provide nutrients and support the retina and the light-sensitive cells that conduct information to the brain.
To create it in the lab, they simply put mouse embryonic stem cells in a cocktail of nutrients and proteins that pushed the cells into developing into retinal cells. But critically they also added a protein gel to support the cells and keep their structure together. At first, the stem cells simply transformed into clusters of early retinal cells, but given time they slowly generated a fully-formed optic cup just as they would in a natural embryo.