A new study in rats shows that certain vesicles (exosomes) released from stem cells appear to protect cells in the retina, the light-sensitive tissue in the back of the eye. The findings, published on January 26, 2017 in Stem Cells Translational Medicine, point to potential therapies for glaucoma, a leading cause of blindness in the United States. The study was conducted by researchers at the National Eye Institute (NEI), part of the National Institutes of Health. The article is titled “Bone Marrow-Derived Mesenchymal Stem Cells-Derived Exosomes Promote Survival of Retinal Ganglion Cells Through miRNA-Dependent Mechanisms.” Exosomes are tiny membrane-enclosed packages that form inside of cells before being released. Long thought of as part of a cellular disposal system, scientists have more recently discovered that exosomes can be packed with proteins, lipids, and gene-regulating RNA. Studies have shown that exosomes from one cell can be taken up by another by fusing with the target cell’s membrane, spurring the target cell to make new proteins. Exosomes also facilitate cell-to-cell interactions and play a signaling role, prompting research into their potential therapeutic effect. In the current study, Ben Mead, Ph.D., a post-doctoral fellow at NEI, investigated the role of stem cell exosomes on retinal ganglion cells, a type of retinal cell that forms the optic nerve that carries visual information from the eye to the brain. The death of retinal ganglion cells leads to vision loss in glaucoma and other optic neuropathies. Stem cells have been the focus of therapeutic attempts to replace or repair tissues because of their ability to morph into any type of cell in the body.
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