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Subspecialties Retina, Glaucoma, Basic & Translational Research

Enter the Exosome

At a Glance

  • Until recently, exosomes were thought to function only as waste product excretion vehicles; in fact, they contain functional molecules that can alter the phenotype of non-cognate cells
  • In particular, the ocular neuroprotective effect of stem cells – which depends on preservation of existing neurons rather than on neuroregeneration – is mediated by stem cell exosomes 
  • Current work demonstrates this effect in the optic crush model, where exosome-vectored microRNAs eliminate about two-thirds of the RGC death seen in untreated animals
  • Stem cell-derived exosomes may form the basis for a novel, cell-free neuroprotective glaucoma therapy

Retinal stem cell therapy works – but the cells aren’t really working in the way you were promised they would back in college. It turns out that they protect the retina not by differentiating into and replacing damaged neurons, but by rescuing existing, compromised cells. But how?

Ten years ago, few would have guessed that exosomes – small extracellular vesicles that are known to assist the elimination of the by-products of cellular metabolism – had any function beyond waste management. But today, the evidence suggests that these humble structures have significant and beneficial effects in terminally differentiated neural tissues.

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About the Author

Ben Mead

Ben Mead received his PhD from the University of Birmingham (UK) for work on the use of stem cells to treat retinal disease and to prevent the death of retinal ganglion cells. Currently, he is a post-doctoral fellow at the Section of Retinal Ganglion Cell Biology of the National Eye Institute, Bethesda, MD, USA, where he is investigating the neuroprotective potential of stem cell factors. His current position is funded by the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship Scheme.

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