Grow a Pair... of Eyes

June 22, 2012

Rheanna Sand

How our bodies are made simultaneously seems miraculous and impossible. Neil Shubin, author of the educational and entertaining book Your Inner Fish brilliantly compares human and animal biological development to "a house coming together spontaneously from all the information contained in the bricks." From one cell, we become two, then four, then eight, and so on until we become that cute/terrifying blob we call "toddler."

One of the main puzzles of developmental biology has been, do certain structures form the way they do because of where they are, or is it intrinsic to the cells? The eye, for example, starts out as a group of cells that keep dividing, eventually forming a bubble that folds back on itself to form what is termed the optic cup. The cup reaches out toward the edge of the head and eventually forms the retina, where the light-receptive rods and cones reside, and it also tells the cells on the outside of your head to form a lens.

But how this blob takes on such a specific cup-shaped morphology has been unclear, that is, until very recently. A group of stem cell researchers at the RIKEN Institute in Japan have successfully grown the first human optic cups in the lab. They used a form of 3-dimensional cell culture into which embryonic stem cells were introduced. Given the right nourishment and appropriate chemical signals - VOILA! - optic cups spontaneously appeared, just as they look in whole embryos.


One eye, one cup. Heh.

This group had accomplished this feat for mouse optic cups, but now that they have grown the precursors to human eyes and shown that they can basically freeze away the retinas for future use, it opens the door to a myriad of applications. More research can be done to figure out how degenerative diseases work, more drugs can be developed and tested, and some diseases may even be treatable in limited circumstances.

3D-printed hearts, lab-grown ovaries, penises, and now eyes! What could possibly be next!?



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