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Vision Loss

Research Makes Great Strides in Solving a Stem Cell Mystery

Scientist performing an experiment using vials of liquid
Scientist performing an experiment using vials of liquid

Fighting Blindness Canada (FBC), the largest private funder of vision research in Canada, has invested over $40 million in the most promising vision research to understand the causes of vision loss and advance new treatments and cures for blinding eye diseases. This investment means that there are now treatments to prevent vision loss for people living with glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration, and diabetes-related vision loss, and that as of 2020, the first sight-restoring gene therapy treatment for an inherited retinal disease is now available in Canada.

In the last year, FBC has funded 26 grants, including six new outstanding research projects that represent some of the most ambitious and impactful vision science initiatives in Canada. One of the grants is to support research by Dr. Michel Cayouette and his team at the Montreal Clinical Research Institute, who identified two molecules that drive stem cells to make cone photoreceptor cells, the light-sensing cells responsible for detail and central vision that are lost in eye diseases like retinitis pigmentosa and Stargardt disease.

Stem cells have the ability to make many new types of cells and are being considered as treatments for blinding eye diseases to replace cells that have been lost or damaged.

Innovating for a brighter future

A large challenge is figuring out how to encourage stem cells to make the specific type of retinal cell needed for treatment — in this case cone photoreceptors — instead of another type of retinal cell.

Dr. Cayouette’s research sheds light on this process, showing that two genes are turned on when stem cells are making cone cells and turned off when they aren’t. The results of Dr. Cayouette’s research also show that artificially turning on the genes drives stem cells to make more cone cells.

“The identification of these genes is exciting because it marks an important step toward understanding how exactly cone cells are generated, which is providing new therapeutic opportunities to replace cone cells lost in various retinal dystrophies,” says Dr. Cayouette. He and his team are now studying whether this information can be used in regenerative medicine.

This impressive discovery is giving scientists the information and inspiration they need as they develop stem cell therapies, moving scientists closer to being able to develop an effective stem cell therapy for retinal diseases.

FBC is proud to fund innovative and promising vision research like the work of Dr. Cayouette and his team, helping to create a brighter future for the 1.5 million Canadians living with vision loss and blindness.

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