Undergraduate Research: Advanced Drug Delivery Research Laboratory
Our plan was to detach from the dissected retinas a special matrix composed of proteins and extracellular materials called the interphotoreceptor matrix (IPM). We would then take this isolated matrix and embed it into an array of different scaffold materials, including polymers, coated silicon slides, and cell culture inserts. These embedded materials were then sent to the Schepens Eye Research Institute at Harvard Medical School, where our colleagues would seed them with retinal progenitor cells (stem cells that have a strong tendency to mature into retinal cells). Why do all this? Simple – to grow a new retina.
Okay, so it’s not so simple. It’s actually an incredibly ambitious project, and one that I had the privilege to work on for almost a year. The ambitions of the project were rooted in past investigations and strong developments in the fields of tissue engineering and stem cell technologies. Past research, completed in part by investigators at Schepens, showed that retinal progenitor cells implanted directly into the subretinal space of the eye could survive, differentiate into photoreceptors, integrate into retinal tissue and improve visual function. However, many of these cells were lost after a short period of time and did not provide a long lasting solution.
Through our project we proposed to use natural retinal extracellular matrix materials, such as the IPM, to develop a scaffold to further aid the integration of these retinal progenitor cells. Having this scaffold would give the cells a more structured and oriented environment in which to grow, and using natural materials would theoretically conserve many of the biochemical cues from the natural retinal environment needed for proper cell development. In short, the scaffold would greatly improve the chances of the long term survival of retinal progenitor cells when compared to previous cell therapy methods.
In part made possible through funding from an Honors Early Research Grant, I was able to work extensively on this project and others closely related to it in the ADDRES Laboratory during Summer and Fall 2011. I was also able to pull from my experiences to apply for the prestigious Goldwater Fellowship, for which I was one of Northeastern University’s four finalists. This experience helped to secure my interest in research and caused me to further consider options for graduate school and related work in industry. As the project continued, we expanded our animal models, scaffold materials and numerous methods of IPM isolation and treatment. Our investigations continue as we seek to make retinal regeneration – and the visual improvements that would accompany it for those with irreversible retinal degeneration and damage – closer to reality.
-Taylor Dickman, Chemical Engineering