The finding may shatter the belief that a cell layer vital for eyesight called the retinal pigment epithelium, or RPE, is a nonrenewable resource, say researchers writing in a recent issue of Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science.
RPE plays a vital role in our visual health by forming the outer barrier of the retina and supporting the function of cells that receive light. Damage to RPE is present in many diseases of the retina, including age-related macular degeneration, which affects more than 1.75 million people in the United States.
With evidence that the body does indeed regenerate these cells in small amounts, scientists can focus on ways to accelerate natural healing processes to treat sight-robbing injuries or diseases.
"What this tells us is for problems such as age-related macular degeneration, we should be able to harvest stem cells to help repair the damage," said senior author Edward Scott, Ph.D., a professor of molecular genetics at the UF Shands Cancer Center and director of the Program in Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at UF's College of Medicine. "The question is whether we can do it in a patient."
Scientists widely believe that RPE is a finite resource. The same belief used to be held about brain cells - people who suffered from trauma, stroke or disease formerly faced no hope of growing new cells to replace dead ones.
Then, in the late 1990s, when scientists began to report findings of brain cell growth in humans and monkeys later in life, focus turned toward understanding the mechanisms to regenerate cells in the brain.
Now, UF researchers believe it may be possible to also grow new cells in the retina to replace cells lost to injury or disease.