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Promise and Progress - Blood Cells Transformed to Repair Damaged Retina

Reprogramming Cancer Cells - The Story of Epigenetics
Issue No. 1

Blood Cells Transformed to Repair Damaged Retina

Date: July 16, 2014

blood cells
IPSC-Derived vascular stem cells (white arrow) incorporating into a damaged retinal blood vessel and repairing it.

Circulation, January 2014

iPSC-derived vascular stem cells (white arrow) incorporating into a damaged retinal blood vessel and repairing it

Imran Bhutto, Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute

The same Kimmel Cancer Center scientist who turned blood stem cells into beating heart cells, has now transformed blood stem cells from human umbilical cord blood into vascular tissue that repaired damaged retinas in mice.

Elias Zambidis, M.D., Ph.D., a Kimmel Cancer Center pediatric oncologist and investigator in the Johns Hopkins Institute for Cell Engineering, converted the blood cells back to a stage of a six-day-old embryo and altered their destiny, coaxing the cells into an embryonic-like state without using viruses—the conventional method—but one that can mutate genes and cause cancers. Rather than viruses, Dr. Zambidis and team used plasmids, rings of DNA that replicate briefly inside cells and then degrade, to deliver the genes that bring about the cell transformation. Next, the scientists isolated and extracted vascular stem cells that make blood vessel-rich tissue needed to repair retinal tissue. Collaborating with experts from the Wilmer Eye Institute, the team injected the vascular cells into mice with damaged retinas.  Injections were given in the eye, sinus cavity, or a vein in the tail.  Regardless of the injection site, the lab-created cells repaired the damaged tissue in the retinas of mice.  Additional studies are ongoing and provide promising new and safe possibilities for regenerative medicine.

Dr. Zambidis, a cancer expert, says the plasticity of blood cells that allows them to be transformed into retinal cells and heart cells, may provide clues about the origins of leukemia and other cancers of the blood.

This research was funded by the Maryland Stem Cell Research Fund, Research to Prevent Blindness, and the National Institutes of Health’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute grants JH 099775 and HL 100397, National Eye Institute grant EY 09357, and National Cancer Institute grant CA 60441

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