Inherited retinal diseases (IRDs) are a group of genetic ocular disorders characterized by vision loss or blindness. A few examples are retinitis pigments (RP) and Usher syndrome. There has been plenty of research into these rare diseases, their causes, how to diagnose them, and how to treat them. One center that has been particularly dedicated to this cause is the Lions Eye Institute (LEI). Now, they’re suited for even more advancement and improvement, thanks to a $750k donation and the support of philanthropist Rhonda Wyllie. This money will go towards a stem cell robot, which allows for a much smoother and less labor-intensive process.
Stem Cell Robots and IRDs
Before we can understand why a stem cell robot is so important when it comes to these rare diseases, we should understand the process that they help. Professor Fred Chen of the LEI explains that retinal tissue is very important when it comes to studying IRDs, but the issue is that access to this tissue is very, very limited. To solve this problem, medical professionals created cellular reprogramming, which sees other cells taken from a patient – such as blood or skin cells – transformed into stem cells. Stem cells act as a base that can be changed into any other type of cell, such as those of the retina. When this process is performed in an IRD patient, medical professionals are better able to study the certain disease that patient has.
The issue with this process is that it takes up a lot of time and labor. The nurturing of stem cells can take three to four months of daily work, and the conversion into other cells takes anywhere from three to eight months. This is where the stem cell robot comes in. It handles the daily, mindless tasks like feeding the cells so that the researchers are free to perform more intensive and progressive work.
Fundraising for the Robot
While philanthropist Rhonda Wyllie played a large role in raising the money for this expensive and useful machine, there were also two unlikely players: Eamon and Kealan Doak, who live with Usher syndrome. In fact, it was Eamon who shared his story at the 2021 Telethon Leeuwin Lunch, which was what inspired Rhonda to get involved.
All of these people are very excited to see what the LEI can do in regard to IRD treatments, and they hope that new robot will play a big role in that.
Now that the stem cell robot is a part of the LEI team, the researchers are free to spend their time on advancing the knowledge, treatments, and care of IRDs. This could mean a brighter future for patients like Eamon and Kealan. However, IRD patients wouldn’t be the only ones benefiting from the new robot. Because stem cells can be converted into any other type of cell, researchers can use them to investigate other rare conditions. Professor Chen points out how this could still be useful when applied to IRD patients, such as those with Usher syndrome, which is also characterized by deafness. Converting cells into those of the inner ear could be useful in treating and caring for that aspect of Usher syndrome.
In the end, this donation and new acquisition are very big steps towards more knowledge and improvements for IRDs. You can read more about it at Insight.