Background: We set out to evaluate the growth potential of human iris pigment epithelial (hIPE) cells in vitro, to establish whether these cells acquire the ability to phagocytose rod outer segments (ROS) and to compare the phagocytic activity of hIPE to that of human retinal pigment epithelial (hRPE) cells.
Methods: hIPE and hRPE cells were isolated and cultured from human donor eyes and surgical specimens and growth characteristics were analyzed. HIPE and hRPE of an eye of a 46-year-old donor were used for the phagocytosis assay. Phagocytosis was evaluated by adding ROS isolated from porcine retina to cultures of hIPE and hRPE, which had been labeled with the pH-sensitive fluorescent dye, carboxy-SNAFL. After 4 h the number of ingested ROS was counted with a light microscope. For each cell type phagosomes in 500 cells were counted. The epithelial characteristics of the cells used in this study were evidenced by their morphology.
Results: Morphologically cultured hIPE are indistinguishable from the hRPE cultured from the same donor eye and show a similar pattern of cytokeratin distribution. Cultured hIPE acquire the ability to phagocytose ROS at a level slightly lower than hRPE; hIPE contained 0.76 phagosomes per cell, hRPE 0.99 phagosomes per cell.
Conclusion: The morphology of hIPE in culture and the acquisition of the phagocytic phenotype indicate that these cells have the ability to differentiate into cells that have characteristics in common with hRPE. The acquisition of phagocytic activity suggests that it is feasible to culture hIPE from surgical iridectomies and that these cultured cells can be transplanted into the subretinal space in individuals with retinal degenerations.