Background: Retinitis pigmentosa (RP) is an inherited retinal disease that results in photoreceptor degeneration, leading to severe vision loss or blindness. Due to its genetic heterogeneity, developing a new gene therapy to correct every genetic mutation contributing to its progression is infeasible. Photoreceptor transplantation can be harnessed to restore vision; however, this approach is limited by poor cell survival and synaptic integration into the neural retina. Thus, we developed a combined cell and gene therapy that is expected to protect photoreceptors in most, if not all, cases of RP.
Methods: Human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) modified with our FailSafe™ system were genetically engineered to overexpress sCX3CL1, an inhibitor of microglia activation that has been shown to preserve photoreceptor survival and function in mouse models of RP, independent of the genetic cause. These cells were differentiated into human retinal pigment epithelium (hRPE) cells and used as therapeutic cells due to their longevity and safety, both of which have been demonstrated in preclinical and clinical studies. Transgenic hRPE were delivered into the subretinal space of immunodeficient mice and the rd10 mouse model of RP to evaluate donor cell survival and retention of transgene expression. The outer nuclear layer was quantified to assess photoreceptor protection.
Results: Transgenic FailSafe™ hRPE (FS-hRPE) cells can survive for at least four months in the retina of immunodeficient mice and retain transgene expression. However, these cells do not persist beyond two weeks post-injection in the retina of immunocompetent rd10 recipients, despite Cyclosporine A treatment. Nevertheless, sCX3CL1-expressing FailSafe™ hRPE cells prevented photoreceptor degeneration in a local acting manner during the duration of their presence in the subretinal space.
Conclusions: Transgenic hESCs differentiate into hRPE cells and retain sCX3CL1 transgene expression both in vitro and in vivo. Moreover, hRPE cells delivered to the subretinal space of rd10 mice prevented photoreceptor degeneration in a local-acting manner, suggesting that this approach could have applications for preserving photoreceptors in specific subregions of the retina, such as the macula. Overall, our study not only reveals the potential of a combined cell and gene therapy for the treatment of RP, but also the possibility of using hRPE cells to deliver therapeutic biologics in situ to treat diseases over long-term.
Keywords: Cell therapy; Gene therapy; Microglia activation; Retinal degeneration; Retinitis pigmentosa.
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