Patient-specific stem cells and personalized gene therapy

PUBLIC RELEASE DATE:

10-Jul-2014

Contact: Lucky Tran lt2549@cumc.columbia.edu 212-305-3689 Columbia University Medical Center

NEW YORK, NY (July 10, 2014) Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) researchers have created a way to develop personalized gene therapies for patients with retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a leading cause of vision loss. The approach, the first of its kind, takes advantage of induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cell technology to transform skin cells into retinal cells, which are then used as a patient-specific model for disease study and preclinical testing.

Using this approach, researchers led by Stephen H. Tsang, MD, PhD, showed that a form of RP caused by mutations to the gene MFRP (membrane frizzled-related protein) disrupts the protein that gives retinal cells their structural integrity. They also showed that the effects of these mutations can be reversed with gene therapy. The approach could potentially be used to create personalized therapies for other forms of RP, as well as other genetic diseases. The paper was published recently in the online edition of Molecular Therapy, the official journal of the American Society for Gene & Cell Therapy.

"The use of patient-specific cell lines for testing the efficacy of gene therapy to precisely correct a patient's genetic deficiency provides yet another tool for advancing the field of personalized medicine," said Dr. Tsang, the Laszlo Z. Bito Associate Professor of Ophthalmology and associate professor of pathology and cell biology.

While RP can begin during infancy, the first symptoms typically emerge in early adulthood, starting with night blindness. As the disease progresses, affected individuals lose peripheral vision. In later stages, RP destroys photoreceptors in the macula, which is responsible for fine central vision. RP is estimated to affect at least 75,000 people in the United States and 1.5 million worldwide.

More than 60 different genes have been linked to RP, making it difficult to develop models to study the disease. Animal models, though useful, have significant limitations because of interspecies differences. Researchers also use human retinal cells from eye banks to study RP. As these cells reflect the end stage of the disease process, however, they reveal little about how the disease develops. There are no human tissue culture models of RP, as it would dangerous to harvest retinal cells from patients. Finally, human embryonic stem cells could be useful in RP research, but they are fraught with ethical, legal, and technical issues.

The use of iPS technology offers a way around these limitations and concerns. Researchers can induce the patient's own skin cells to revert to a more basic, embryonic stem celllike state. Such cells are "pluripotent," meaning that they can be transformed into specialized cells of various types.

In the current study, the CUMC team used iPS technology to transform skin cells taken from two RP patientseach with a different MFRP mutationinto retinal cells, creating patient-specific models for studying the disease and testing potential therapies.

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Patient-specific stem cells and personalized gene therapy

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