Stem cell therapy restores sight to blind mice

A transplantation treatment based on stem cells has moved closer to being tested in humans with severe vision problems, after successful trials in mice.

The method, which was shown to restore visual function in half of mice with end-stage retinal degeneration, involved transplanting retinal tissue derived from mouse induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) into the host retina.

In order to create the transplant tissue, researchers first genetically reprogrammed skin cells taken from adult mice to an embryonic stem cell-like state before converting these iPSCs into retinal tissue. When transplanted into mice with end-stage retinal degeneration, the iPSC-derived retinal tissue developed to form photoreceptors that established direct contact with neighbouring cells in the retina.

The treatment, developed by senior study author Masayo Takahashi and first author Michiko Mandai of the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology, was able to restore vision in roughly half of the mice with end-stage retinal degeneration. The research team are now testing the ability to replicate the results using human-derived iPSC retinal tissue.

“It is still a developing-stage therapy, and one cannot expect to restore practical vision at the moment,” Takahashi cautioned. “We will start from the stage of seeing a light or large figure, but hope to restore more substantial vision in the future.”

End-stage retinal degeneration is a leading cause of irreversible vision loss and blindness in older individuals. There is currently no cure and therapies are limited in their capability to stop the progression of vision loss.

The therapy strategy used by the RIKEN team is that of cell replacement, a method that, until now, suffered from uncertainty as to whether transplantation of stem cell tissues could actually restore visual function.

The key to success found by the researchers was the use of differentiated retinal tissues as opposed to retinal cells, which have previously been the focus of field use for most researchers. In almost all of the retinas that were transplanted, the researchers found at least some measure of response to light stimulation.

“The photoreceptors in the 3D structure can develop to form more mature, organized morphology, and therefore may respond better to light,” Takahashi explains. “From our data, the post-transplantation retina can respond to light already at one month in mice, but since the human retina takes a longer time to mature, it may take five to six months for the transplanted retina to start responding to light.”

Although simple light perception isn’t full restoration of sight, it is indicative of the possibilities of the treatment and shows that visual functions can be restored.

Takahashi’s acknowledgement of the increased complexity of human cells requires bearing in mind; it will not be a simple switchover from mice to human patients. However, if their new experiments into human-derived tissues prove successful, it may not be long before work can begin transferring this restorative success to clinical trials.

60% of primate species threatened with extinction

A new study has called for urgent action to protect the world’s rapidly dwindling primate populations after figures revealed that 60% of the world’s primate species are threatened with extinction. There are over 500 currently recognised primate species, with the percentage considered at risk having increased by 20% since 1996.

The study draws attention to the incredible impact that humans have placed on primate environments. Agriculture, logging, construction, resource extraction and other human activities have all placed escalating and unsustainable pressure on the animals’ habitats, and are predicted to only worsen over the next 50 years.

Unless immediate action is taken, the scientists predict numerous extinctions.

“In 1996 around 40% of the then recognised primate taxa were threatened. The increase to 60% at present is extremely worrying and indicates that more conservation efforts are needed to halt this increase,” says Serge Wich, professor by special appointment of Conservation of the Great Apes at the University of Amsterdam.

Interestingly, one of the main suggestions for helping the primates is first helping humans. Most primates live in regions characterised by high levels of poverty and inequality, a fact that the study authors believe leads to greater hunting and habitat loss.

They suggest that immediate actions should be taken to improve health and access to education, develop sustainable land-use initiatives, and preserve traditional livelihoods that can contribute to food security and environmental conservation.

While it may be tragic to some, it could be easy to see the loss of these primates as unimportant to humans. However, it is important to note that the non-human primates’ biological relation to humans offers unique insights into human evolution, biology, behaviour and the threat of emerging diseases.

Additionally, these species serve as key components of tropical biodiversity and contribute to forest regeneration and ecosystem health. If they are struck by mass extinction, it is hard to predict the impact it could have on their ecosystems.

“‘If we are unable to reduce the impact of our activities on primates, it is difficult to foresee how we will maintain this fantastic diversity of our closest relatives in the near future,” added Wich. “That will not only be a great loss from a scientific point of view, but will also have a negative influence on the ecosystems that we all rely so much upon. It is therefore important to drastically change from the business as usual scenarios to more sustainable ones.”

The threat posed to delicate ecosystems by human expansion is nothing new, but it is perhaps shocking to have such a blunt figure out there as to the damage being caused.

More than half of these species – species that are far closer to us than we may be comfortable discussing – could die unless current policy is reversed.

The study’s authors have called on authorities across the world to take action and raise awareness of the issues raised.

The article itself is published in the latest edition of the journal Science Advances.

Mark Zuckerberg: VR goal is still 5-10 years away

Mark Zuzkerberg has said that the true goal of virtual reality could still be a decade away, in a testimony during a high-profile court case against his company.

Facebook, as owner of Oculus, is currently in the middle of being sued by ZeniMax Media for allegedly stealing technology for the virtual reality device. If proved guilty, they will be pursued for the amount of $2bn by ZeniMax.  However, perhaps more pertinent to the actual future of virtual reality are comments arising from Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony.

As it currently stands, virtual reality is still a far cry from being integrated into everyday life on a wide scale. Oculus, HTC Vive and Playstation VR are still largely targeting gamers and the idea of entertainment experiences. While they have found varying levels of success, all three platforms are being held back by the youth of the technology and, in the case of Vive and Oculus, the limited by the need for a high performing computer to plug into.

Image and featured image courtesy of Oculus

“I don’t think that good virtual reality is fully there yet,” said Zuckerberg. “It’s going to take five or 10 more years of development before we get to where we all want to go.”

The revelation isn’t a particularly shocking one; even the most ardent believer in virtual reality has to admit that we’re a fair way off the goal. Indeed, we can be seen as being in the first wave of mainstream virtual reality, with the main players in the tech using gaming as a way to introduce the technology to a group that are most likely to be interested from the off.

Zuckerberg has far grander plans than simply expanding the user base however, as seen with projects such as Facebook Social VR. If games are the entry, the idea is to expand virtual reality to become a whole new computing platform used for a bevy of experiences and containing a whole load of tools. The ambition is high, the reality slightly lagging behind.

Mark Zuckerberg with Priscilla Chan in 2016

When asked about the realisation of VR as this new computing platform, Zuckerberg replied: “These things end up being more complex than you think up front. If anything, we may have to invest even more money to get to the goals we had than we had thought up front.”

He then went on to add that the probable investment for Facebook to reach that goal is likely to top the $3bn mark over the next ten years. Considering the social media giant spent $2bn just to acquire Oculus, this represents a truly colossal investment in something that seemed to be initially set to hit a lot sooner. Admittedly the goal is rather grand: providing hundreds of millions of people with a good virtual reality experience transcending gaming alone.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, it’s very important that you know that Mark Zuckerberg did in fact wear a suit to trial. Whether Palmer Luckey, making his first public appearance since his Gamergate/Trump support scandal last year, will manage to ditch the flip flops when he testifies is yet to be seen.