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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Adult ciliary epithelial stem cells generate functional neurons and differentiate into both early and late born retinal neurons under non-cell autonomous influences

Carolina Beltrame Del Debbio1, Xu Peng2, Huangui Xiong2 and Iqbal Ahmad1*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, University of Nebraska Medical Center, Durham Research Center 1, Room 4044, 985840 Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha, NE 68198-5840, USA

2 Department of Pharmacology and Experimental Neuroscience, University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha, Nebraska 68198-5840, USA

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BMC Neuroscience 2013, 14:130  doi:10.1186/1471-2202-14-130

Published: 22 October 2013

Abstract

Background

The neural stem cells discovered in the adult ciliary epithelium (CE) in higher vertebrates have emerged as an accessible source of retinal progenitors; these cells can self-renew and possess retinal potential. However, recent studies have cast doubt as to whether these cells could generate functional neurons and differentiate along the retinal lineage. Here, we have systematically examined the pan neural and retinal potential of CE stem cells.

Results

Molecular and cellular analysis was carried out to examine the plasticity of CE stem cells, obtained from mice expressing green fluorescent protein (GFP) under the influence of the promoter of the rod photoreceptor-specific gene, Nrl, using the neurospheres assay. Differentiation was induced by specific culture conditions and evaluated by both transcripts and protein levels of lineage-specific regulators and markers. Temporal pattern of their levels were examined to determine the expression of genes and proteins underlying the regulatory hierarchy of cells specific differentiation in vitro. Functional attributes of differentiation were examined by the presence of current profiles and pharmacological mobilization of intracellular calcium using whole cell recordings and Fura-based calcium imaging, respectively. We demonstrate that stem cells in adult CE not only have the capacity to generate functional neurons, acquiring the expression of sodium and potassium channels, but also respond to specific cues in culture and preferentially differentiate along the lineages of retinal ganglion cells (RGCs) and rod photoreceptors, the early and late born retinal neurons, respectively. The retinal differentiation of CE stem cells was characterized by the temporal acquisition of the expression of the regulators of RGCs and rod photoreceptors, followed by the display of cell type-specific mature markers and mobilization of intracellular calcium.

Conclusions

Our study demonstrates the bonafide retinal potential of adult CE stem cells and suggests that their plasticity could be harnessed for clinical purposes once barriers associated with any lineage conversion, i.e., low efficiency and fidelity is overcome through the identification of conducive culture conditions.

Keywords:
Stem cells; Ciliary epithelium; Photoreceptors; Retinal ganglion cells; Cell therapy; Retina