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.

Russia announces testing of country-wide drone control network, paving way for commercial boom

Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, has announced that it will begin testing a vast drone control network that will run across the nation.

The network, which is based on the country’s extensive existing satellite system, will allow small UAVs to safely operate in massive numbers within Russian airspace.

Once established, it will likely lead to an explosion in the commercial use of drones in the country, with drone deliveries in particular becoming viable on an unprecedented scale.

The announcement was made at Navitech 2017 in Moscow yesterday by experts from Russian Space Systems, a space hardware company owned by Roscosmos. Outlining the details of the system, they said that testing would begin this year, but did not provide a precise date for its start.

Each drone in the network will follow a route determined by the system, with ground-based infrastructure continuously receiving real-time data about its location and flight parameters.

This will immediately be processed and disseminated across the network, to ensure that large numbers of drones can be safely flown at any time, without interfering with both each other and traditional airspace traffic.

The network will not require the establishment of major new infrastructure, as all data will be transmitted through a combination of existing systems: FM transmitters, the country’s established cellular communication systems and GLONASS, Russia’s global satellite navigation system, which has provided 100% coverage of the country since 2011.

The system will also provide real-time data about no-fly zones, allowing routes to be adjusted immediately in response to changing information, and will offer a “platform of integrated applications” to UAV operators, content providers and insurance companies.

Roscosmos believes that the system will significantly reduce operating costs for drone owners by limiting the risks involved with running a commercial drone operation, as well as creating the conditions for new industries to emerge.

Among the industries the space agency expects to blossom through the adoption of the network are drone insurance, cloud software that would increase the capabilities of drones and what it calls “convenient services” – a term that likely refers to drone deliveries.

If the platform does deliver on this hope, it is likely Russia would become the first country with an extensive drone delivery network, realising a dream that was first brought to prominence by Amazon back in 2013. However, the US-based company is unlikely to become the main player in the Russian market, having as yet shown little interest in the country for its Prime Air operations.

As with many countries, drone deliveries are currently a rare occurrence in Russia, with notable exceptions including DoDo Pizza, a Syktyvkar-based company that began delivering pizzas to local residents back in 2014.

NFL players’ union signs historic deal that will enable players to sell their own performance data and make them “healthier and wealthier”

The NFL players association (NFLPA) has signed a landmark deal with human performance company WHOOP that will give players access to, ownership of and the option to sell their individual health data.

All current and future NFL players will be issued with a WHOOP Strap 2.0, which allows them to, without interference from their clubs, monitor their own performance, recovery and sleep.

WHOOP’s strap contains five sensors that measure data 100 times per second and automatically transmit it to accompanying mobile and web apps. WHOOP has also developed a Team Dashboard, which it says has “27 levels of privacy to ensure sharing data is completely secure and comfortable for all parties involved”.

“Our mission at WHOOP is to empower athletes. This partnership with the NFLPA is truly the first of its kind in that athletes will finally become both healthier and wealthier by collecting, controlling, and ultimately having the ability to sell their own health and performance data,” said Will Ahmed, founder and CEO at WHOOP.

“We applaud the NFLPA’s vision and share its commitment to work with athletes to better monitor their recovery and enable longer careers.”

Image and featured image courtesy of Alan Kotok

The partnership between the NFLPA and WHOOP is the first of its kind and was secured through the OneTeam Collective, which is an initiative designed to give companies like WHOOP the opportunity to leverage the NFLPA’s exclusive player rights.

WHOOP has hinted at seeking further partnerships with players’ unions in future.

In addition to owning their own data, as part of the agreement NFL players can design custom licensed bands for the WHOOP Strap, which will be made available commercially and allow players to further monetise the arrangement between the two parties.

“Every day, NFL players produce data that can translate into physiological and financial opportunities. We see partnering with WHOOP as the first step in harnessing this exciting technology,” said Ahmad Nassar, President of NFL Players Inc.

“We are excited to have WHOOP and its innovative, holistic monitoring technology serve as our first OneTeam Collective deal. Together, we’re paving the way towards a new frontier where athletes are empowered by data.”

Russell Okung playing for the Denver Broncos in 2016. Image courtesy of By Jeffrey Beall – Own work, CC BY 4.0

Along with the commercial opportunities WHOOP will offer players, the partnership also promises to help players optimise training and recovery, improve performance and reduce injuries.

The NFLPA and WHOOP will both study the effects travel, sleep, scheduling and injuries have on recovery and generate reports for players aimed at boosting athletic performance.

“WHOOP and the NFLPA are putting the power of data directly in the players’ hands. I want to recover faster, avoid injuries, and have a longer career. This partnership has the potential to contribute to my health, which is imperative to my career in football,” said Russell Okung of the Los Angeles Chargers.