Stem cells reveal key to eye health

Grace Lidgerwood has been exploring how the cells in the eye function to better understand diseases that affect vision. Through using stem cells to grow different cells of the eye, Grace is looking at the barrier between blood and the retina, the thin light-sensitive layer at the back of the eye vital for vision. Breakdown of this barrier is a common feature in many retinal diseases, including diabetic retinopathy and age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

Grace is working under the supervision of the University of Melbourne’s Associate Professor Alice Pébay in the Neuroregeneration lab. Grace recently completed published the findings of her PhD in the prestigious lipid journal BBA-Mol Cell Biology of Lipids.

The Neuroregeneration team is interested in studying different eye conditions in the lab. The lab uses these tissues grown from patients stem cells to understand how disease develop. They can do this in a dish, giving researchers incredible insight into the different stages of disease and potential treatments targets.

Grace’s PhD project examined different methods to change, or differentiate, patients’ stem cells into cells that she wanted to study. She was particularly interested in the retinal pigment epithelium cells, the cells that nourish and support the cells within the retina responsible for converting light into signals that allow us to see. She used these cells to examine their function and what goes awry during disease. Through her investigations, Grace developed a rapid and reproducible differentiation technique, which allowed her to identify specific molecules, released by these cells, and explore their role in the maintenance of the retinal pigment epithelial. She discovered a specific compound (referred to as the bioactive lipid LPA) and an associated enzyme that are highly expressed in the retinal pigment. Grace’s findings suggest that this lipid plays an important role in the integrity and functionality of the healthy retina and blood retina barrier.

Grace will continue her research career as a postdoc with Associate Professor Alice Pébay in the Department of Anatomy and Neuroscience.

Grace’s work was supported by The Centre for Stem Cell Systems and JEM Research Foundation.

Polygonal morphology of the retinal pigment epithelial

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Grace Lidgerwood