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The eye from the petri dish

Complete artificial retina from the laboratory The eye from the petri dish

Researchers at the University of Basel have developed an exact replica of the human retina. All they needed was a patient’s skin or blood samples. With such replicas, new therapies for eye diseases could be developed.

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Close up of a human eye
Close up of a human eye

(Image: University of Basel / Suren Manvelyan)

Basel / Switzerland – The eyes are considered the gateway to the soul. Above all, however, the eyes are the gateway to visual perception. We use them to record our environment, orient ourselves and absorb information. For this to work, we need a healthy retina. It is the processor in the eye, where incident light is first converted into chemical and finally into electrical signals, from which our brain creates images in the head.

But vision often deteriorates in old age. According to the Pro Retina Association, approximately seven million people in Germany alone suffer from age-related macular degeneration, a retinal disease for which there is currently no cure. Further research is needed here to better understand the complex conditions of the eye and develop new forms of therapy.

Mini organs grown from skin or blood samples

The most meaningful results can be obtained from studies on real human eyes. But donor organs are hardly available, so animal models are often used.

Another possibility is specially grown cell cultures that simulate parts of the eye. A research group led by Professor Botond Roska, Head of the Institute of Molecular and Clinical Ophthalmology Basel (IOB), has now made special progress. He has been cultivating human retinas for six years and has now almost achieved his goal: with his team, Roska cultivated a tissue that is considered a retinal organoid because it has the same properties as the human retina – including disease parameters in individual patients. The researchers only needed skin or blood samples from the patients to grow the organ.

“Our retinal organoids are so special because they have a layered structure like the human retina and respond to light in the same way,” explains Dr. Cameron Cowan. He is a postdoctoral fellow in the Human Retinal Circuit Group at the Institute for Molecular and Clinical Ophthalmology Basel (IOB) and one of the first authors of the publication.

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Natural and cultured retinas are very similar

The comparison of the cultured retinal organoids with retinas from multiorgan donors confirmed the strong similarities. “We were able to show that our cultured organoids after 38 weeks – which is equivalent to the duration of an average human pregnancy – have many of the same cell types as the retina of an adult,” said Professor Botond Roska, head of the Institute of Molecular and Clinical Ophthalmologist Basel (IOB) . “We were the first to keep the deceased’s human retina functional and sensitive to light.” This made it possible in the current study to compare the cultured retina with a natural human retina.

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Researchers have grown human retinas in the laboratory (symbol image).
Researchers have grown human retinas in the laboratory (symbol image).

(Photo: Collage: unsplash (Girl with red hat), University of Basel / Suren Manvelyan)

What makes retinal organs so important for medicine is, so to speak, their susceptibility to failure. This is because defects in the cultured retinas lead to the same retinal diseases as defects in the same cell types in a human retina.

“We can grow retinal organoids from skin biopsies or blood from individual patients. This enables us to develop laboratory treatments that are tailored to these patients, explains Dr. Magdalena Renner. She is also the first author of the publication and head of the Human Organoid Platform at IOB. With the help of the cultured retina, new therapies could be developed to treat retinal diseases that previously led to blindness.

A European research team is building a device that patients can use to scan their eyes without contact and get a diagnosis a few minutes later.

Original publication: Cameron S. 013

(ID: 46866604)

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