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February 2010

Snapshot

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Protein-treated cells grow longer nerve fibers

stem cells

This image shows a culture of stem cells from the brain. A stem cell can divide into two new cells or differentiate into one of many mature cell types found in the body.

Scientists are taking advantage of these qualities in the field of regenerative medicine to repair or replace damaged tissues and organs. For example, vision scientists are developing techniques to use transplanted stem cells to replace nerve cells in the retina that have been destroyed by diseases such as retinitis pigmentosa or glaucoma.

In a healthy eye, nerve cells called retinal ganglion cells transmit visual information from the retina to the brain via long extensions called axons. In glaucoma, these cells become damaged or die, causing vision loss. For transplanted stem cells to perform the same functions of retinal ganglion cells, they need long axons. Therefore, NEI researchers are studying molecules that could stimulate axon growth.

In this image, stem cells from the brain have differentiated into two types of cells: support cells known as glia (in red) and nerve cells (in green). The nuclei, or control centers, of the cells are blue. The other colors indicate parts of the cells that are overlapping.

These cells have been treated with a protein called Olfactomedin-1. Scientists hypothesize that this protein promotes axon growth. In fact, researchers found that the protein increased the average axon length by more than 30 percent, as evidenced by the long green extensions from the nerve cells in this image. Scientists will continue studying Olfactomedin-1's effects on stem cells, with the goal of establishing therapies to treat degenerative eye conditions.

Image of neural stem cells from an adult rat courtesy of research fellow Thomas V. Johnson, III, and staff scientist Naoki Nakaya, Ph.D., both of the Molecular Mechanisms of Glaucoma Section of the NEI Laboratory of Molecular and Developmental Biology.

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