Purpose: Retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) dysfunction underlies the retinal degenerative process in age-related macular degeneration (AMD), and thus RPE cell replacement provides an optimal treatment target. We characterized longitudinally the efficacy of RPE cells derived under xeno-free conditions from clinical and xeno-free grade human embryonic stem cells (OpRegen) following transplantation into the subretinal space of Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) rats.
Methods: Postnatal (P) day 20 to 25 RCS rats (n = 242) received a single subretinal injection of 25,000 (low)-, 100,000 (mid)-, or 200,000 (high)-dose xeno-free RPE cells. BSS+ (balanced salt solution) (vehicle) and unoperated eyes served as controls. Optomotor tracking (OKT) behavior was used to quantify functional efficacy. Histology and immunohistochemistry were used to evaluate photoreceptor rescue and transplanted cell survival at 60, 100, 150, and 200 days of age.
Results: OKT was rescued in a dose-dependent manner. Outer nuclear layer (ONL) was significantly thicker in cell-treated eyes than controls up to P150. Transplanted RPE cells were identified in both the subretinal space and integrated into the host RPE monolayer in animals of all age groups, and often contained internalized photoreceptor outer segments. No pathology was observed.
Conclusions: OpRegen RPE cells survived, rescued visual function, preserved rod and cone photoreceptors long-term in the RCS rat. Thus, these data support the use of OpRegen RPE cells for the treatment of human RPE cell disorders including AMD.
Translational relevance: Our novel xeno-free RPE cells minimize concerns of animal derived contaminants while providing a promising prospective therapy to the diseased retina.
Keywords: AMD; RPE cells; Xeno-free; transplantation.