Stem Cell Virtuoso Yoshiki Sasai Grows Retinas and Brains in the Lab
All it took to grow a retina, it turned out, were a few tweaks, such as a reduction in the concentration of growth factors and the addition of a standard cell-culture ingredient called Matrigel.
The result closely mimics eye development in the embryo. By the sixth day in culture, the brain balls start sprouting balloon-like growths of retinal cells, which then collapse in on themselves to make the double-walled optic cups.
Sasai’s team snip them off — “like taking an apple from a tree”, says Sasai — transfer them to a different culture and let them be. Two weeks later, the cups have formed all six layers of the retina, an architecture that resembles the eye of an 8-day-old mouse (which, at that age, is still blind).
That the cells could drive themselves through this dramatic biomechanical process without surrounding tissues to support them stunned Sasai as much as anyone else.
“When I saw it, I thought, ‘Oh my god.’ Shape, topology and size are all recapitulated,” he says. Carefully explaining the pun to come, he adds: “In English, when you are surprised, you say ‘eye-popping’ — so we really thought this was eye-popping.”