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Reprogramming the retina

Dr Raymond Wong is leading research to use cellular reprogramming to turn eye cells into light sensing photoreceptors to restore sight.

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The retina is a thin layer of tissue at the back of the eye, made up of millions of cells that are essential for vision.

For people with inherited retinal diseases such as retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic ‘mistake’ causes these cells to stop functioning, leading to vision loss and blindness. Once these cells are lost, there is currently no effective way to restore sight.

CERA’s Cellular Reprogramming Unit, led by Dr Raymond Wong, is working to unravel the mysteries of the retina and develop treatments for eye disease using cellular reprogramming and stem cell technologies.

Now they’re one step closer, having developed the world’s most detailed gene map of the human retina– and receiving an Ideas Grant from the National Health and Medical Research Council to support their cellular reprogramming researchover the next three years.

Retinal cell atlas

 

The retinal cell atlas project was led by Dr Wong in collaboration with Dr Samuel Lukowski from the Institute for Molecular Bioscience at the University of Queensland and Associate Professor Joseph Powell from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research.

It was the first Australian contribution to the Human Cell Atlas Project – a global project to create reference maps of all human cells to better understand disease.

“By creating a genetic map of the human retina, we can understand the factors that enable cells to keep functioning and contribute to healthy vision,” says Dr Wong.

“It can also help us understand the genetic signals that cause a cell to stop functioning, leading to vision loss and blindness. This understanding is the first step to better identifying what causes disease and ultimately developing treatments.”

Regenerating photoreceptors

 

One way the retinal atlas will help future research is in the emerging area of cellular reprogramming. Through this advanced technology, it may be possible to convert other cells in the eye into new photoreceptors– the light-detecting cells in the back of the retina – and restore sight.

This is a major project Dr Wong and his team are working on in 2020 and beyond, thanks not only to the grant from the NHMRC, but also the Kel & Rosie Day Foundation and Retina Australia.

“This project aims to convert and repurpose retinal cells within the eye into new photoreceptors, promoting retinal regeneration and visual repair.

“It will provide preclinical evidence of the potential of this therapy to treat photoreceptor loss, as seen in retinitis pigmentosa and other inherited retinal diseases including Stargardt’s disease and age-related macular degeneration.”

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