In a breakthrough for the effort to cure blindness, researchers at the University of Cambridge have used an inkjet printer to print living retinal cells for the first time. The cells could be built up and used to replace defective eye tissue. Professor Keith Martin from Cambridge’s neuroscience department is hopeful the development will bring them one step closer to treating retinal diseases such as glaucoma and macular degeneration.
The study, which was published in the research journal Biofabrication, is the first to show that retinal ganglion cells, which transmit signals from the eye to the brain, and glial cells that support this process, can be printed in layers on top of each other without damaging them.
“This is the first time that cells from the adult central nervous system have been successfully printed,” Martin told Dezeen. “We’ve demonstrated that you can take cells from the retina and you can effectively separate them out. These can be put in an inkjet printer and we can print those cells out in any pattern we like and we’ve shown that those cells can survive and thrive.”
The team’s initial prediction was that the cells would be distorted from being fired out of the printer at 30 miles per hour. As this wasn’t the case, the next step will be to print multiple layers to build up a full retina. Martin envisages that this could be done by engineering a retina on a synthetic membrane or similar support structure and implanting it into the eye; or by developing tools that would allow the printed cells to be sprayed onto the back of the eye.
Human trials are still a distant prospect for the team, but if they were to prove successful, Martin sees no reason why this technology couldn’t be applied to other areas of neural repair. Before long, many of us could be walking around with a slew of 3D-printed body parts to compensate for health problems and other afflictions.
Lead image courtesy of Cambridge University