Phagocytosis of photoreceptor outer segments by transplanted human neural stem cells as a neuroprotective mechanism in retinal degeneration

Nicolás Cuenca, Laura Fernández-Sánchez, Trevor J. McGill, Bin Lu, Shaomei Wang, Raymond Lund, Stephen Huhn, Alexandra Capela

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

41 Scopus citations


PURPOSE. Transplantation of human central nervous system stem cells (HuCNS-SC) into the subretinal space of Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) rats preserves photoreceptors and visual function. To explore possible mechanism(s) of action underlying this neuroprotective effect, we performed a detailed morphologic and ultrastructure analysis of HuCNS-SC transplanted retinas. METHODS. The HuCNS-SC were transplanted into the subretinal space of RCS rats. Histologic examination of the transplanted retinas was performed by light and electron microscopy. Areas of the retina adjacent to HuCNS-SC graft (treated regions) were analyzed and compared to control sections obtained from the same retina, but distant from the transplant site (untreated regions). RESULTS. The HuCNS-SC were detected as a layer of STEM 121 immunopositive cells in the subretinal space. In treated regions, preserved photoreceptor nuclei, as well as inner and outer segments were identified readily. In contrast, classic signs of degeneration were observed in the untreated regions. Interestingly, detailed ultrastructure analysis revealed a striking preservation of the photoreceptor-bipolar-horizontal cell synaptic contacts in the outer plexiform layer (OPL) of treated areas, in stark contrast with untreated areas. Finally, the presence of phagosomes and vesicles exhibiting the lamellar structure of outer segments also was detected within the cytosol of HuCNS-SC, indicating that these cells have phagocytic capacity in vivo. CONCLUSIONS. This study reveals the novel finding that preservation of specialized synaptic contacts between photoreceptors and second order neurons, as well as phagocytosis of photoreceptor outer segments, are potential mechanism(s) of HuCNS-SC transplantation, mediating functional rescue in retinal degeneration.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)6745-6756
Number of pages12
JournalInvestigative Ophthalmology and Visual Science
Issue number10
StatePublished - Sep 17 2013


  • Electron microscopy
  • Phagocytosis
  • Retinal degeneration
  • Synaptic contacts
  • Therapy
  • Transplant

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ophthalmology
  • Sensory Systems
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience


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