Utah scientists revive cells in human donor eyes, transforming brain and vision research

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SALT LAKE CITY — A team of researchers from the University of Utah’s John A. Moran Eye Center have succeeded in reviving neurons and communication in the eyes of human donors, which they believe could transform research on brain and vision.

This study, they said, will benefit research on other neural tissues of the central nervous system and help researchers better understand neurodegenerative diseases, such as macular degeneration.

“We were able to awaken photoreceptor cells in the human macula, which is the part of the retina responsible for our central vision and our ability to see fine detail and color,” said Moran Eye Center scientist Fatima Abbas, lead author of a study. published Wednesday in Nature.

Abbas said age-related macular degeneration, which leads to blindness, affects around 10% of the population.

“Just being able to take these donor eyes and understand how the retina works in humans, specifically, and what’s wrong with these diseases is a huge thing,” Abbas said.

She explained that in donor eyes obtained up to five hours after the donor’s death, cells react to bright light, colored light and flashes of dim light, but they could not communicate with others. retinal cells. The researchers determined that this loss of communication stemmed from oxygen deprivation.

To solve this problem, they procured donor eyes within 20 minutes of a donor’s death and designed a transport unit capable of restoring oxygenation and nutrients to donor eyes.

Frans Vinberg, a scientist at the Moran Eye Center, said they were able to make retinal cells communicate like they do in living eyes.

“Previous studies have restored very limited electrical activity in the eyes of organ donors, but this has never been achieved in the macula, and never to the extent that we have now demonstrated,” Vinberg said.

He said people are living longer now, which means more people are struggling with retinal neurodegenerative diseases that lead to blindness.

“If these neurons die, it’s hard to imagine how you can revive them,” he said.

Vinberg said this approach, using eyes from human donors, reduces research costs compared to using non-human primates and also ensures that the results will apply to humans. He said mice are often used for vision research, but they don’t have maculas. Through this study, they established an approach to reviving the neural tissue at the back of the eye.

“The scientific community can now study human vision in a way that is simply not possible with laboratory animals. … We hope this will motivate organ donor societies, organ donors and eye banks by helping them understand the exciting new possibilities this type of research offers,” Vinberg said.

He said they were producing fully functional retinal patches.

“We’re basically encouraging other scientists to start getting human neural tissue and really studying and understanding how human neurons work,” Vinberg said.

Scripps Research Associate Professor Dr. Anne Hanneken, who is also a retinal surgeon, said this ability to create viable patches of human retinal tissue will help treat blinding diseases.

“In the future, we may use this approach to develop treatments aimed at improving vision and light signaling in eyes with macular diseases, such as age-related macular degeneration,” Hanneken said.

A press release from the University of Utah Health explained that this study joins others that question “the irreversible nature of death”, since death is partly defined by a loss of neuronal activity.


Emily Ashcraft joined KSL.com as a reporter in 2021. She covers court and legal affairs, as well as health, faith and religion news.

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