Inducing a Cure: Nebraska Doctor seeking new ways to treat blindness

Dr. Iqbal Ahmad with the University of Nebraska Medical Center is looking into new ways to create stem cells (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
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March 29, 2013 - 6:30am

A doctor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, expanding on Nobel Prize winning research, has developed a new way of creating stem cells.

In his fourth floor laboratory at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Dr. Iqbal Ahmad and his team are breaking new ground. Ahmad, a professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, has expanded on Nobel prize winning research concerning stem cells. His findings could lead to an eventual cure for blindness.

“Our main goal still is to understand how the retina develops. The information that we obtain from those studies can be used to see why certain cells in the retina die out, and what can we do to rescue these changes so that people do not lose their vision,” Ahmad said.

Since 1996, Ahmad has been trying to develop treatments for blindness through the use of stem cells, which have long been hailed in the scientific community for the regenerative properties. What makes stem cells unique, according to Ahmad, is their plasticity. Stem cells can transform into any type of cell in the body.

When first discovered, the primary source for stem cells was from fetal tissue, a controversial issue in the U.S. That’s why Ahmad developed a way to take cells from almost any part of the body, and change their genetic makeup by soaking them in a special solution.

Photos by Ryan Robertson, NET News

A look inside the incubator at the petri dishes Dr. Iqbal Ahmad uses to create induced pluripotent stem cells. One of the main challenges Dr. Ahmad faces is improving the efficiency of the process. Ahmad says only about 20-25 percent of the cells soaked in these petri dishes will become usable iPSC's.

The process created what are called Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (iPSC’s) which mirror the qualities of embryonic stem cells.

“You take cells which are fairly well committed to become one kind of cells--in any part of the body-- and you induce them to become pluripotent, which means they can give rise to all the cell types that make our body,” Ahmad said.

Using his process, Ahmad said he can take a skin cell, and induce it to become brain tissue, lung tissue, or as in the case of his research, retinal tissue.

It’s from this point where Ahmad can use the iPSC’s to combat several conditions which cause blindness, such as glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration. Another breakthrough in Ahmad’s research came when he transplanted some of the cells in an animal model of glaucoma.

“We have demonstrated these cells can integrate within the host tissue, host retina, and they can become the cells which have degenerated. So we have gone to a step where we have shown when we transplant the cells, they are picked up by the host tissue,” Ahmad explained.

“Within the host tissue, [the transplanted cells] start resembling the cells which have died out. Whether or not they will or they won’t rescue the blindness, we have not shown that yet, but it is in progress,” Ahmad said.

It’s an exciting time in his research, but what does it mean to people who could possibly benefit from his work?

Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News

Jeff Altman, an orientation and mobility instructor with the Nebraska Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired, uses a technique called echolocation to navigate the hallways at the commission. Using a specifically designed cane he developed, Altman taps the end of the instrument on the ground in front of him. Based on the sound created, and the position of the cane, Altman can determine what is in front of him. It's a technique he is teaching his students at the Commission, and he says it will help them lead a full life and be productive members of society.

Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News

Alex Castillo is a counselor at the Nebraska Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired. He helps those with a sight disablity learn how to make the necessary adjustments to live on their own. He has glaucoma, and could potentially benefit from Dr. Iqbal Ahmad's research, but he said he's already living a full life in the meantime.

Jeff Altman is an orientation and mobility instructor with the Nebraska Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired. His job is teaching those with a sight disability how to not just cope with their blindness, but live a full life. Altman said stem cell research may be exciting, but it might not be the best way to spend the state’s resources.

“None of us want to discourage that research, but if [the Nebraska Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired] had the kind of budget that some of those hospitals have, where the research is being done, we could do a tremendous amount to help people really develop a life that’s going to be independent and decent,” Altman said.

Amy Buresh, a vocational and rehabilitation counselor at the Nebraska Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired, agreed with Altman.

I was born premature and only weighed a couple of pounds. So my blindness is caused by ROP, retinopathy of prematurity. So I’ve never had any vision to speak of,” Buresh said.

Like Altman, she feels often times too much emphasis is put into finding a cure for blindness. She said some blind people may fall into a trap of hoping for tomorrow, instead of living today.

Alex Castillo, another counselor at the Commission for the Blind, has glaucoma. His condition is one which Ahmad’s research could benefit someday, but he said he’s not going to lose sleep waiting for treatment which may or may not come in his lifetime.

“I’m not missing out on anything. I’m employed. I have a girlfriend. I have a social life. I have a network of friends and family. There’s nothing really missing in my life other than probably a good work-out routine,” Castillo joked.

Castillo’s response to the research may seem surprising to some, classifying his blindness more as a characteristic than an ailment in need of a cure.

But it’s not all that surprising to Ahmad, who said his research is aimed at treating blindness, and not necessarily curing it.

While Ahmad hopes his research can help improve the quality of life for those who suffer from vision loss, it isn’t limited to just vision loss.

Ahmad said the findings from his stem cell research can be used by other doctors researching different conditions, such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s.

“There is cross-pollination, if you will, going on and using this information from diverse sources, the pace of the progress has increased,” Ahmad said.

While the progress of his own research increases, Ahmad also said resources must be set aside and spent educating those who suffer from vision loss, adding the importance of such training and support cannot be underestimated.





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