Madison-based Cellular Dynamics International will expand its stem cell-based research into blindness-causing eye disease through a collaborative project with the National Eye Institute at the National Institutes of Health.

The agreement means CDI will provide manufactured cells with the potential for transplantation to treat retinal degenerative diseases, such as macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness. The Eye Institute will conduct experiments, and the two will perform studies and co-examine results.

CDI and the Eye Institute have already worked together on a related contract, started in 2014, which converts blood and tissue from patients into stem cells. The long-term goal is regeneration by putting reprogrammed, manufactured cells back into the patients.

CDI’s stem cell research represents “major advancements in the whole technology,” said the Eye Institute’s Dr. Kapil Bharti, who will work with CDI on the research. “They have significantly reduced the time and money that goes into the preparation of these cells.”

The contract formalizes a collaboration, “the next step” from the earlier contract, said Bharti. Financial terms of the partnership with the Eye Institute were not disclosed.

“It is a joint effort to take that project and make it into a commercially viable clinical therapy, a very natural transition,” he said, praising CDI as “hard core scientists.

“They ask the fundamental questions we are interested in. Working with them the past two years we were able to develop the technology at high quality. They were careful, and patient.”

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CDI chairman Kaz Hirao said in a statement, “While iPSC-derived (induced pluripotent stem cells) cells have great potential for regenerative medicine applications, there are many hurdles yet to overcome. This agreement builds on the longstanding relationship between CDI and the National Eye Institute to address some of these hurdles, and may lead to iPSC-based therapies for patients with serious diseases of the eye.”

Macular degeneration is the leading cause of vision loss, affecting 10 million Americans. There is no known cure, though it is caused by the deterioration of the central portion of the retina.

This new contract continues an effort to create the cells that make up a regulating and protective barrier outside the retina.

The experiments would attach those cells to a biodegradable scaffolding. Also being evaluated is that scaffolding material, a product of Fujifilm, which bought CDI last spring for $307 million.

Founded in 2004, Cellular Dynamics manufactures mass quantities of stem cells using adult tissue or blood samples, reverting them into their embryonic form so they can be reprogrammed into such things as heart, liver or nerve cells.

Researchers use the cells to test for toxic substances and scientists test them as potential treatments for all sorts of diseases.