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Growing Retinas in the Lab

Growing Retinas in the Lab

Cones (red) and rods (green) in a retinal organoid cultured for about seven months.

It’s not easy to study the retina and its diseases—in particular, macular degeneration, the leading cause of irreversible vision loss in people over age 60. The retina’s macula, a small spot in the center of the retina where vision is the sharpest, is crucial for both central vision and visual acuity. It is also rich in cones, the photoreceptors that enable color vision. But the macula is unique to primates, and nonhuman primates are extremely costly to study.

Now, as reported in May 2019 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Einstein scientists have for the first time successfully produced cone-rich retinal organoids that resemble the human macula. The research was led by Wei Liu, Ph.D., assistant professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences and of genetics at Einstein.

Organoids—tiny clumps of cells grown in tissue culture that resemble human tissues or organs—have emerged as powerful models for studying human development and disease. They are derived from stem cells—in this case, human embryonic stem cells, which Dr. Liu and his colleagues coaxed to develop into retinal organoids.

Cone-rich retinal organoids could be a valuable resource for studying the biology of the human retina and may help reveal the molecular glitches that affect the retina, leading to treatments for macular degeneration and other blinding retinal diseases.

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