A promising clinical application for stem and progenitor cell transplantation is in rescue therapy for degenerative diseases. This strategy seeks to preserve rather than restore host tissue function by taking advantage of unique properties often displayed by these versatile cells. In studies using different neurodegenerative disease models, transplanted human neural progenitor cells (hNPC) protected dying host neurons within both the brain and spinal cord. Based on these reports, we explored the potential of hNPC transplantation to rescue visual function in an animal model of retinal degeneration, the Royal College of Surgeons rat.
Animals received unilateral subretinal injections of hNPC or medium alone at an age preceding major photoreceptor loss. Principal outcomes were quantified using electroretinography, visual acuity measurements and luminance threshold recordings from the superior colliculus. At 90–100 days postnatal, a time point when untreated rats exhibit little or no retinal or visual function, hNPC-treated eyes retained substantial retinal electrical activity and visual field with near-normal visual acuity. Functional efficacy was further enhanced when hNPC were genetically engineered to secrete glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor. Histological examination at 150 days postnatal showed hNPC had formed a nearly continuous pigmented layer between the neural retina and retinal pigment epithelium, as well as distributed within the inner retina. A concomitant preservation of host cone photoreceptors was also observed.
Wild type and genetically modified human neural progenitor cells survive for prolonged periods, migrate extensively, secrete growth factors and rescue visual functions following subretinal transplantation in the Royal College of Surgeons rat. These results underscore the potential therapeutic utility of hNPC in the treatment of retinal degenerative diseases and suggest potential mechanisms underlying their effect in vivo.