Much controversy has arisen on the nature and sources of stem cells in the adult human retina. Whilst ciliary epithelium has been thought to constitute a source of neural stem cells, a population of Müller glia in the neural retina has also been shown to exhibit neurogenic characteristics. This study aimed to compare the neurogenic and proliferative abilities between these two major cell populations. It also examined whether differences exist between the pigmented and non-pigmented ciliary epithelium (CE) from the adult human eye. On this basis, Müller glia with stem cell characteristics and pigmented and non-pigmented CE were isolated from human neural retina and ciliary epithelium respectively. Expression of glial, epithelial and neural progenitor markers was examined in these cells following culture under adherent and non-adherent conditions and treatments to induce neural differentiation. Unlike pigmented CE which did not proliferate, non-pigmented CE cells exhibited limited proliferation in vitro, unless epidermal growth factor (EGF) was present in the culture medium to prolong their survival. In contrast, Müller glial stem cells (MSC) cultured as adherent monolayers reached confluence within a few weeks and continued to proliferative indefinitely in the absence of EGF. Both MSC and non-pigmented CE expressed markers of neural progenitors, including SOX2, PAX6, CHX10 and NOTCH. Nestin, a neural stem cell marker, was only expressed by MSC. Non-pigmented CE displayed epithelial morphology, limited photoreceptor gene expression and stained strongly for pigmented epithelial markers upon culture with neural differentiation factors. In contrast, MSC adopted neural morphology and expressed markers of retinal ganglion cells and photoreceptors when cultured under similar conditions.
This study provides the first demonstration that pigmented CE possess different proliferative abilities from non-pigmented CE. It also showed that although non-pigmented CE express genes of retinal progenitors, they do not differentiate into neurons in vitro, as that seen with Müller glia that proliferate indefinitely in vitro and that acquire markers of retinal neurons in culture under neural differentiation protocols. From these observations it is possible to suggest that Müller glia that express markers of neural progenitors and become spontaneously immortalized in vitro constitute a potential source of retinal neurons for transplantation studies and fulfil the characteristics of true stem cells due to their proliferative and neurogenic ability.