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Retinal Regeneration: Releasing Your Inner Salamander

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For someone with a retinal disease such as retinitis pigmentosa or macular degeneration, their vision loss is caused by photoreceptor degeneration. Photoreceptors are the retinal cells that capture light and convert it into electrical signals, which are sent back to the brain where they are used to create the images we see.

Many research groups from around the world are investigating ways to create new photoreceptors from stem cells for transplantation into the retina for vision restoration. But this approach presents many challenges including risk of immune response to the new photoreceptors, as well as the difficulty in getting them to functionally integrate with the patient’s existing retinal tissue. The delicate surgery often necessary for transplanting the new cells can be risky, as well.

However, Thomas Reh, PhD, an FFB-funded expert in retinal development and regeneration at the University of Washington, is working on an innovative approach with the potential to revolutionize how scientists go about restoring vision. He’s trying to find a way to coax the retina to grow its own, new photoreceptors.

In fact, at the 2018 VISIONS Conference in San Diego, he received FFB’s 2018 Ed Gollob Board of Directors Award for his research paper in the journal Nature on the emerging technique, which was inspired by his earlier work with amphibians.

“The paper is the culmination of research in my lab spanning more than 30 years.  I first learned about the ability of salamanders to regenerate their retinas when I was an undergraduate student at University of Illinois,” said Dr. Reh. “There was a professor there, Dr. David Stocum, who studied limb regeneration in these amphibians.  I was fascinated that these animals had this potential. When I started my own lab as an assistant professor in Calgary, I began to study regeneration in tadpoles.”

Dr. Reh’s paper in Nature highlighted his retinal regeneration advancements in mice. His team was able to derive neurons from retinal cells called Muller glia, which normally provide architectural support and a number of protective and waste-disposal functions. The new neurons connect with the existing circuits and the cells respond to light. However, the new neurons are not full-fledged photoreceptors, so there is much more work to be done in advancing the approach into a human study.

“The FFB is currently funding our research to derive actual photoreceptors from Muller glia,” said Dr. Reh. “The next step would be to develop an appropriate gene therapy for humans to direct expression of the protein Ascl1, the catalyst for deriving photoreceptors from Muller glia.”

Dr. Reh added that safety and efficacy studies in a large-animal model would be necessary before moving the approach into a clinical trial.”While more work needs to be done, Dr. Reh’s regenerative therapy is potentially another achievable option for retinal regeneration that has advantages over transplantation,” said Stephen Rose, PhD, FFB’s chief scientific officer. “He’s an innovator willing to look outside of the box. That is important in getting vision-restoring, retinal-disease treatments out to the people who need them.”

17 Responses to 'Retinal Regeneration: Releasing Your Inner Salamander'

  1. Lisa hauser says:

    My son is 28 lost his vision to rp four years ago
    Is there a way to get on a list or something to no when
    Something that can help him is approved he has a very
    Rare mitrochondrial disease diagnosed aftr sezuires
    Startted at age 17 as well as now blind he has severe
    Tremors etc etc im lisa his mom who cares for him
    Full time thank you

  2. Mitzy Rizo says:

    My name is Mitzy, I am 49 years old and I have the onstages of RP. My Mother had it and her Father had it. I’m still able to drive, but only in the day time. Dusk is the worst time for me. If you need recipients, I would really like to do it. My mother when passed was 95% blind. I want to beat this, so I don’t have to be a burden to my husband and kids. I would really appreciate the consideration.

    • EyeOnTheCure says:

      Hi Mitzy, this research is currently not at a clinical trial stage yet. But we would suggest visiting to search for recruiting trials for RP. You can use the site’s search function to find trials relevant to you.

  3. Tonya Brust says:

    I am 50 years old and have Pseudoxanthoma Elasticum. (PXE). Pseudoxanthoma elasticum (PXE) is a rare disorder of degeneration of the elastic fibers with tiny areas of calcification in the skin, back of the eyes (retinae), and blood vessels. Pseudoxanthoma Elasticum (PXE) is a systemic disease that can affect the eye. PXE is not an eye disease, so to speak — however, its effects can be seen in the eye. PXE can cause a weakening, or cracking, of one of the important layers in the retina — Bruch’s Membrane. These “cracks” are called Angioid Streaks which can cause a bleed and blindness, which happened in my right eye before VegF shots were available. So I am legally blind in my right eye 20/200 and have limited vision in my left. I have severe vision loss which is caused from Atrophy, my cells dying off from the calcification. and the weakening of the retina. They have determined that the mutated Gene ABCC6 causes PXE but no other advancement for a cure or to stop the loss of vision. I was wondering if your research could benefit me and other Pixies as we call ourselves.
    Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.

    Thank you,
    Tonya Brust

    • EyeOnTheCure says:

      Hi Tonya, we recommend visiting the clinical trials website and searching for trials recruiting for PXE. You can find the website here: The site has a search function to find trials relevant to your disease and near you.

  4. sameh says:

    hi my name’s sameh im 30 years old i have stargardt since i was 23 i didn’t find any treatment for it ou to ameliorate my vision could you help me by giving me the perfect drug or inform me by the latest thérapies.thank you

  5. Valorie Sheehan says:

    My son is now 53 years old and is like bing with Uhers syndrome type 2. We have frozen cord blood from his 3 children and I was wondering if those cells could be studied for possible implantation in the future?

    • EyeOnTheCure says:

      Hi Valorie, we recommend talking to a genetic counselor about ramifications (pros and cons) of testing cord blood. The Foundation is unfortunately not able to provide recommendations regarding treatments for a specific patient. Best of luck!

  6. Sandra says:

    My name is Sandra, I am 77 years old I had macular did generation and I am also hearing impaired have them losing my vision for over a year. I live in Southwest Florida , Looking for help to try and stay independent. I no longer drive, or see well enough to shop alone.
    I have been trying to find a small condo or affordable assisted living facility in or around Fort Myers, Or Cape Coral,Florida.
    Hoping to find a volunteer to help me set up my iPad for the visually impaired.

  7. Sajad says:

    My son age 24 is suffering from RP. He is 70 oersent blind. Can some help me. Only hope is there.

  8. Thank you for your replies. My 13 year old son sustained an injury that left a scar on his retina along the macular so he’s lost the center vision in that eye. While it’s not his photo-receptors that are solely impacted the through of retina regeneration is very exciting. Your replies have a number of links that may be helpful for me to follow.

  9. Hemalatha says:


    I am Mrs. Hemalatha from India, 69 yrs old. Suffered a central retinal artery occlusion with cilioretinal sparing in the month of March of this year. Lost partial vision in my right eye. This has impacted my life terribly. Please let me know if I can hope for some treatment to regenerate the retina. Willing to participate in any clinical trials.

    • EyeOnTheCure says:

      Hi Hemalatha, we fund research for inherited (genetic) retinal diseases, so unfortunately the research we support does not apply to your condition. We recommend you consult your doctor for your individual medical needs. Good luck!

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