TOKYO -- Hitachi Ltd. and the government-backed Riken research institute announced on March 14 that they have successfully automated the production of sheets of a cell found in the eye from induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells -- a world first.
The sheets of retinal pigment epithelial cells are used in clinical tests for the treatment of age-related macular degeneration (AMD), an intractable disease that entails the slow destruction of certain cells in the eye's retina resulting in blurred or lost vision in the central visual field.
If the method for automatically culturing iPS cells into the retinal cell sheets can be put into practical use, it will allow for a steady supply of the sheets when the treatment method is established, and provide a boost to the emerging field of regenerative medicine.
In a September 2014 clinical test, a research team headed by Masayo Takahashi of the Riken Center for Developmental Biology transplanted a sheet of the retinal cells into a female patient. It was the first treatment of the disease using iPS cells. It has been reported that the patient's vision remains good two years after the transplant.
Once the effectiveness and safety of the method is confirmed, it will be recognized as a form of general medical treatment.
While steady progress has been made on the clinical tests, the mass production of such cell sheets has been a challenge. It is a high-skill task, it requires that cell culture fluids be frequently replaced, and there are few facilities capable of cultivating the sheets.
Hitachi has developed equipment that can culture the cell sheets in antiseptic conditions hermetically sealed off from the outside environment, as well as a special container to culture retinal tissues for the project.
Utilizing Riken's expertise in culturing iPS cells, Hitachi and the institute have succeeded in automatically culturing the stem cells into retinal pigment epithelial cell sheets. The automatic process took almost the same amount of time as it does for a skilled technician, and produced sheets of the same quality.
The equipment that Hitachi has developed is still in the research and development stage, and it remains to be seen how long it will take to put the equipment into practical use, say researchers.
(Japanese original by Shimpei Torii, Osaka Science & Environment News Department)