Synthetic retina gives fresh view for visually impaired

The future is bright for visually impaired patients thanks to an Oxford student who has been the first to use synthetic tissue to develop an artificial retina grown in a laboratory. Published in Scientific Reports, the findings show progress in bionic implants to mimic human tissues to treat degenerative eye conditions.

Vanessa Restrepo-Schild, lead researcher and student at Oxford University, and her team developed the synthetic, double-layer retina to consists of soft water droplets and biological cell membrane proteins to mimic a human retina. The retina is able to detect and react to light and create a grey scale image.

“The synthetic material can generate electrical signals, which stimulate the neurons at the back of our eye just like the original retina,” said Restrepo-Schild.

The study showed the implant as a less invasive alternative compared to a mechanical device. Unlike current artificial retinal implant, the cell-cultures in this developed retina produced biodegradable material that did not contain foreign bodies of living entities.

“The human eye is incredibly sensitive, which is why foreign bodies like metal retinal implants can be so damaging, leading to inflammation and/or scaring,” said Restrepo-Schild. “But a biological synthetic implant is soft and water based, so much more friendly to the eye environment. I have taken the principals behind vital bodily functions, e.g. our sense of hearing, touch and the ability to detect light, and replicated them in a laboratory environment with natural, synthetic components. I hope my research is the first step in a journey towards building technology that is soft and biodegradable instead of hard and wasteful.”