Researchers at the University of Nebraska Medical Center have uncovered a pathway to activate existing adult stem cells within the eye, coaxing them to transform into photoreceptors. The study suggests that adult stem cells within the retina can be chemically induced to regenerate photoreceptors and restore vision, without transplanting any cells into the eye. The work could provide a route to treatment of age-related macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa.

The retina of mammals contains cells known as Muller cells that help with maintenance of the retina. The scientists found that a rare subset of Muller cells act as stem cells, and can be activated in the laboratory to form photoreceptor cells. When rats with retinal damage were treated to stimulate the Muller cells in their retinas, there was a significant improvement in light perception in treated animals.

Senior author Iqbal Ahmad said:

"This is really exciting. It's a tantalizing stem cell approach to correct vision loss ... to harness existing stem cells and coax them into repairing the retina. Before, stem cell transplantation was regarded to be the only practical way to restore vision. This is a radically different approach, and best of all, it is relatively safe and free from controversy."

The study was published in the journal PLOSOne.