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NIH discovery could advance precise therapies for blinding diseases

Published on 10/05/22 at 08:26am

Research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have identified distinct differences among the cells comprising a tissue in the retina that is vital to human visual perception. Scientists from the National Eye Institute (NEI) discovered five subpopulations of retinal pigment epithelium (RPE).

RPE is a layer of tissue that nourishes and supports the retina’s light-sensing photoreceptors. The researchers analysed images of RPE at single-cell resolution, using artificial intelligence, to create a reference map that locates each subpopulation within the eye.

“Overall, the results suggest that AI can detect changes of RPE cell morphometry prior to the development of visibly apparent degeneration,” said the study’s first author, Davide Ortolan, PhD a research fellow in the NEI Ocular and Stem Cell Translational Research Section.

The findings of the research will help inform future studies, using non-invasive imaging technologies, such as adaptive optics, which resolve retinal cells in unprecedented detail, and could potentially be used to predict changes in RPE health in living patients.

“These results provide a first-of-its-kind framework for understanding different RPE cell subpopulations and their vulnerability to retinal diseases, and for developing targeted therapies to treat them,” said Michael F Chiang, MD, director of the NEI, part of the National Institutes of Health.

The researchers sought to determine if there are different RPE subpopulations that might explain the wide spectrum of retinal disease phenotypes, and used AI to analyse RPE cell morphometry – the external shape and dimensions of each cell. 47.6 million cells were analysed in total.

“The findings will help us develop more precise cell and gene therapies for specific degenerative eye diseases,” said the study’s lead investigator, Kapil Bharti, PhD, who directs the NEI Ocular and Stem Cell Translational Research Section.

Ana Ovey

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