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Thursday, October 27, 2022
NIH researchers home in on a new cause of Stargardt disease
Study may help lead to gene therapy for rare inherited blinding disease.
Using a new stem-cell based model made from skin cells, scientists found the first direct evidence that Stargardt-related ABCA4 gene mutations affect a layer of cells in the eye called the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE). The discovery points to a new understanding of Stargardt disease progression and suggests a therapeutic strategy for the disease, which currently lacks treatment. The study took place at the National Eye Institute (NEI), part of the National Institutes of Health. The findings published online today in Stem Cell Reports.
“This new model will accelerate development of therapies for Stargardt disease,” said NEI Director Michael F. Chiang, M.D. “We lack a therapy for this disease in part because it’s rare. This model theoretically creates an unlimited supply of human cells for study.” Stargardt affects about 1 in every 10,000 people in the U.S.
Stargardt disease causes progressive loss of central and night vision. The vision loss is associated with the toxic build-up of lipid-rich deposits in the RPE, whose main job is to support and nourish the retina’s light sensing photoreceptors. Under normal conditions, the ABCA4 gene makes a protein that prevents this toxic build-up. Prior research showed that Stargardt disease is caused by a variety of mutations in the ABCA4 gene. More than 800 ABCA4 mutations are known to be associated with a broad spectrum of Stargardt disease phenotypes.
One way the RPE supports photoreceptors is by ingesting their spent outer segments, which keeps the cell pruned and healthy. In Stargardt disease, many scientists believe that RPE cells die after they acquire toxic byproducts when they ingest outer segments, and that this in turn leads to photoreceptor death and vision loss.
Much of the current understanding of Stargardt disease was gained by studying mouse models, which are inherently limited owing to the wide genetic variability of the disease in humans. With a human model of RPE, the NEI investigators were able to determine if ABCA4 gene mutations directly affected the RPE independent of photoreceptors.
To develop the model, the researchers took skin cells from Stargardt patients, converted them to stem cells, and then coaxed the stem cells to differentiate into RPE cells. Examining the patient-derived RPE, researchers detected ABCA4 protein on the RPE cell membrane. They explored the function of ABCA4 in RPE development by using the gene editing technology CRISPR/Cas9 to generate patient-derived RPE lacking ABCA4, called an ABCA4 knockout. They found that loss of ABCA4 did not affect maturation of the patient-derived RPE.
However, when the RPE lacking ABCA4 were exposed to normal (wild type) photoreceptor outer segments, the RPE cells accumulated intracellular lipids deposits.
Further tests of the ABCA4 knockouts showed evidence of defective RPE lipid metabolism and an impaired ability to digest photoreceptor outer segments, leading to lipid deposits in RPE cells.
This is the first report where loss of ABCA4 function in human RPE has been associated with intracellular lipid deposits in those cells, without exposure to ABCA4 mutant photoreceptor outer segments. Over time, these lipid deposits may contribute to RPE atrophy, leading to photoreceptor degeneration.
“Our report provides guidance for a gene therapy approach to target RPE,” said the study’s lead investigator, Kapil Bharti, Ph.D., senior investigator of the NEI Ocular and Stem Cell Translational Research Section. “Our data suggests that in addition to correcting ABCA4 loss of function in photoreceptors, gene therapies need to also target RPE cells.”
This research is part of a larger effort by the NEI to address the limited availability of patient-derived stem cell lines for studying Stargardt disease. To overcome this barrier, the NEI initiated a STGD1-iPSC banking program from patients with different ABAC4 mutations. These cells will be made available to the community at-large for mechanistic and genotype-phenotype studies.
The work was funded by the NEI Intramural Research Program.
This press release describes a basic research finding. Basic research increases our understanding of human behavior and biology, which is foundational to advancing new and better ways to prevent, diagnose, and treat disease. Science is an unpredictable and incremental process— each research advance builds on past discoveries, often in unexpected ways. Most clinical advances would not be possible without the knowledge of fundamental basic research. To learn more about basic research, visit https://www.nih.gov/news-events/basic-research-digital-media-kit.
NEI leads the federal government’s efforts to eliminate vision loss and improve quality of life through vision research…driving innovation, fostering collaboration, expanding the vision workforce, and educating the public and key stakeholders. NEI supports basic and clinical science programs to develop sight-saving treatments and to broaden opportunities for people with vision impairment. For more information, visit https://www.nei.nih.gov.
About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation's medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit www.nih.gov.
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Farnoodian M, Bose D, Khristov V, Susaimanickam PJ, Maddileti S, Mariappan I, Abu-Asab M, Campos M, Villasmil R, Wan Q, Maminishkis A, McGaughey D, Barone F, Gundry RL, Riordon DR, Boheler KR, Sharma, Bharti K. "Cell autonomous lipid handling defects in Stargardt iPS cell-derived retinal pigment epithelium cells". Published October 27, 2022 in Stem Cell Reports.