Each morning, more than 2 million Americans start their rise-and-shine routine by remembering to take their eye drops. The drops treat their open-angle glaucoma, the most-common form of the disease, caused by obstructed drainage of fluid where the eye’s cornea and iris meet. The slow drainage increases fluid pressure at the front of the eye. Meanwhile, at the back of the eye, fluid pushes on the optic nerve, causing its bundled fibers to fray and leading to gradual loss of side vision.
For many, the eye drops help to lower intraocular pressure and prevent vision loss. But for others, the drops aren’t sufficient and their intraocular pressure remains high. Such people will need next-level care, possibly including eye surgery, to reopen the clogged drainage ducts and slow this disease that disproportionately affects older adults and African Americans over age 40.
Sally Baxter, a physician-scientist with expertise in ophthalmology at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), wants to learn how to predict who is at greatest risk for serious vision loss from open-angle and other forms of glaucoma. That way, they can receive more aggressive early care to protect their vision from this second-leading cause of blindness in the U.S..
To pursue this challenging research goal, Baxter has received a 2020 NIH Director’s Early Independence Award. Her research will build on the clinical observation that people with glaucoma frequently battle other chronic health problems, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease. To learn more about how these and other chronic health conditions might influence glaucoma outcomes, Baxter has begun mining a rich source of data: electronic health records (EHRs).
In an earlier study of patients at UCSD, Baxter showed that EHR data helped to predict which people would need glaucoma surgery within the next six months . The finding suggested that the EHR, especially information on a patient’s blood pressure and medications, could predict the risk for worsening glaucoma.
In her NIH-supported work, she’s already extended this earlier “Big Data” finding by analyzing data from more than 1,200 people with glaucoma who participate in NIH’s All of Us Research Program . With consent from the participants, Baxter used their EHRs to train a computer to find telltale patterns within the data and then predict with 80 to 99 percent accuracy who would later require eye surgery.
The findings confirm that machine learning approaches and EHR data can indeed help in managing people with glaucoma. That’s true even when the EHR data don’t contain any information specific to a person’s eye health.
In fact, the work of Baxter and other groups have pointed to an especially important role for blood pressure in shaping glaucoma outcomes. Hoping to explore this lead further with the support of her Early Independence Award, Baxter also will enroll patients in a study to test whether blood-pressure monitoring smart watches can add important predictive information on glaucoma progression. By combining round-the-clock blood pressure data with EHR data, she hopes to predict glaucoma progression with even greater precision. She’s also exploring innovative ways to track whether people with glaucoma use their eye drops as prescribed, which is another important predictor of the risk of irreversible vision loss .
Glaucoma research continues to undergo great progress. This progress ranges from basic research to the development of new treatments and high-resolution imaging technologies to improve diagnostics. But Baxter’s quest to develop practical clinical tools hold great promise, too, and hopefully will help one day to protect the vision of millions of people with glaucoma around the world.
In recent years, researchers have figured out how to take a person’s skin or blood cells and turn them into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) that offer tremendous potential for regenerative medicine. Still, it’s been a challenge to devise safe and effective ways to move this discovery from the lab into the clinic. That’s why I’m pleased to highlight progress toward using iPSC technology to treat a major cause of vision loss: age-related macular degeneration (AMD).
In the new work, researchers from NIH’s National Eye Institute developed iPSCs from blood-forming stem cells isolated from blood donated by people with advanced AMD . Next, these iPSCs were exposed to a variety of growth factors and placed on supportive scaffold that encouraged them to develop into healthy retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) tissue, which nurtures the light-sensing cells in the eye’s retina. The researchers went on to show that their lab-grown RPE patch could be transplanted safely into animal models of AMD, preventing blindness in the animals.
This preclinical work will now serve as the foundation for a safety trial of iPSC-derived RPE transplants in 12 human volunteers who have already suffered vision loss due to the more common “dry” form of AMD, for which there is currently no approved treatment. If all goes well, the NIH-led trial may begin enrolling patients as soon as this year.
Risk factors for AMD include a combination of genetic and environmental factors, including age and smoking. Currently, more than 2 million Americans have vision-threatening AMD, with millions more having early signs of the disease .
AMD involves progressive damage to the macula, an area of the retina about the size of a pinhead, made up of millions of light-sensing cells that generate our sharp, central vision. Though the exact causes of AMD are unknown, RPE cells early on become inflamed and lose their ability to clear away debris from the retina. This leads to more inflammation and progressive cell death.
As RPE cells are lost during the “dry” phase of the disease, light-sensing cells in the macula also start to die and reduce central vision. In some people, abnormal, leaky blood vessels will form near the macula, called “wet” AMD, spilling fluid and blood under the retina and causing significant vision loss. “Wet” AMD has approved treatments. “Dry” AMD does not.
But, advances in iPSC technology have brought hope that it might one day be possible to shore up degenerating RPE in those with dry AMD, halting the death of light-sensing cells and vision loss. In fact, preliminary studies conducted in Japan explored ways to deliver replacement RPE to the retina . Though progress was made, those studies highlighted the need for more reliable ways to produce replacement RPE from a patient’s own cells. The Japanese program also raised concerns that iPSCs derived from people with AMD might be prone to cancer-causing genomic changes.
With these challenges in mind, the NEI team led by Kapil Bharti and Ruchi Sharma have designed a more robust process to produce RPE tissue suitable for testing in people. As described in Science Translational Medicine, they’ve come up with a three-step process.
Rather than using fibroblast cells from skin as others had done, Bharti and Sharma’s team started with blood-forming stem cells from three AMD patients. They reprogrammed those cells into “banks” of iPSCs containing multiple different clones, carefully screening them to ensure that they were free of potentially cancer-causing changes.
Next, those iPSCs were exposed to a special blend of growth factors to transform them into RPE tissue. That recipe has been pursued by other groups for a while, but needed to be particularly precise for this human application. In order for the tissue to function properly in the retina, the cells must assemble into a uniform sheet, just one-cell thick, and align facing in the same direction.
So, the researchers developed a specially designed scaffold made of biodegradable polymer nanofibers. That scaffold helps to ensure that the cells orient themselves correctly, while also lending strength for surgical transplantation. By spreading a single layer of iPSC-derived RPE progenitors onto their scaffolds and treating it with just the right growth factors, the researchers showed they could produce an RPE patch ready for the clinic in about 10 weeks.
To test the viability of the RPE patch, the researchers first transplanted a tiny version (containing about 2,500 RPE cells) into the eyes of a rat with a compromised immune system, which enables human cells to survive. By 10 weeks after surgery, the human replacement tissue had integrated into the animals’ retinas with no signs of toxicity.
Next, the researchers tested a larger RPE patch (containing 70,000 cells) in pigs with an AMD-like condition. This patch is the same size the researchers ultimately would expect to use in people. Ten weeks after surgery, the RPE patch had integrated into the animals’ eyes, where it protected the light-sensing cells that are so critical for vision, preventing blindness.
These results provide encouraging evidence that the iPSC approach to treating dry AMD should be both safe and effective. But only a well-designed human clinical trial, with all the appropriate prior oversights to be sure the benefits justify the risks, will prove whether or not this bold approach might be the solution to blindness faced by millions of people in the future.
As the U.S. population ages, the number of people with advanced AMD is expected to rise. With continued progress in treatment and prevention, including iPSC technology and many other promising approaches, the hope is that more people with AMD will retain healthy vision for a lifetime.
Credit: Salma Muhammad Al Saai, Salil Lachke, University of Delaware, Newark
Live long enough, and there’s a good chance that you will develop a cataract, a clouding of the eye’s lens that impairs vision. Currently, U.S. eye surgeons perform about 3 million operations a year to swap out those clouded lenses with clear, artificial ones . But wouldn’t it be great if we could develop non-surgical ways of preventing, slowing, or even reversing the growth of cataracts? This image, from the lab of NIH-grantee Salil Lachke at the University of Delaware, Newark, is part of an effort to do just that.
Here you can see the process of lens development at work in a tissue cross-section from an adult mouse. In mice, as in people, a single layer of stem-like epithelial cells (far left, blue/green) gives rise to specialized lens cells (middle, blue/green) throughout life. The new cells initially resemble their progenitor cells, displaying nuclei (blue) and the cytoskeletal protein actin (green). But soon these cells will produce vast amounts of water-soluble proteins, called crystallins, to enhance their transparency, while gradually degrading their nuclei to eliminate light-scattering bulk. What remains are fully differentiated, enucleated, non-replicating lens fiber cells (right, green), which refract light onto the retina at the back of the eye.