University of Nebraska Medical Center scientists hope to use adult stem cells from the eyes to develop cells that could treat glaucoma.

The project, overseen by professor Iqbal Ahmad, has received $1.48 million from the National Institutes of Health. Ahmad has four years to prove the strategy works in mice.

If it does, he would test it in monkeys and then humans, Ahmad said.

The latter step could be six or seven years away, said Ahmad, a professor of ophthalmology at UNMC. The project piggybacks off a discovery made several years ago by Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka. Yamanaka found that adult stem cells could be genetically changed into cells similar to embryonic stem cells.

Ahmad and colleague Sowmya Parameswaran have found that the adult stem cells from the eyes can be reprogrammed into cells like embryonic stem cells by bathing them in a solution similar to that which embryos experience.

From those reprogrammed cells, the scientists are able to devise retinal ganglion cells. Those are the cells that degenerate in glaucoma victims.

The new cells, when injected into the eye, theoretically would connect with the brain to restore sight. Ahmad has shown this connection can be made in a petri dish in a laboratory.

Now he hopes to show that it can work in living animals.

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