Can 3D-Printed Eye Cells Cure Blindness?

3D-printed eye cells could one day cure blindness.

The 21st century has seen the inception and growth in popularity of 3D printing. With well-known applications in architecture, manufacturing, and engineering, the technology is now increasingly being used in medicine. When combined with organic inks and thermoplastics, 3D printing technology has enabled the “bioprinting” of a range of human body parts, including 3D-printed eye cells.

A group of scientists at the University of Cambridge have used inkjet printing technology to successfully produce artificial tissue grafts made from a variety of cells found within the human retina. Researchers claim these cells provide proof that a 3D printer can be used to print two types of cells from the retina of adult rats. In time, the ability to print retinal cells can lead to new therapies for retinal disorders, including macular degeneration – a leading cause of blindness and visual impairment in older adults.

Ganglion and Glial Cells

Although the results are preliminary, they provide proof that an inkjet printer can be used to print two types of cells from the retinas of adult rats – ganglion and glial cells. Ganglion cells act as a bridge between information transmission from the eye to the brain, and glial cells support and protect neurons. According to experts, the loss of these types of nerve cells in the retina is at the core of many blinding eye diseases.

Not only is printing these cells a possibility with 3D printing technology, but these cells stayed healthy and kept their ability to survive and grow in culture. For the first time in history, the essential ganglion and glial cells can be printed in layers on top of each other without their structure being ruined.

Regenerative Medicine

The ability to arrange cells into highly defined patterns and structures has elevated the use of 3D printing in biomedical sciences to create cell-based structures used in regenerative medicine. In the study, researchers used a single nozzle piezoelectric inkjet printer to eject the cells through a diameter nozzle when a specific electrical pulse was applied.

The researchers plan to extend this study to print other cells of the retina. Additionally, they’d like to investigate if light-sensitive photoreceptors can be successfully printed using the technology. Ideally, the results of the study would enable the printing process to be further developed and suitable for commercial, multi-nozzle print heads. This way, different types of cells could be printed from different nozzles at the exact same time, increasing efficiency and consistency.

3D Prosthetic Eyes

According to the UK-based Fripp Design and Research, batch-printing of up to 150 prosthetic eyes an hour has become a reality. The mass-production of prosthetic eyes promises to speed up the manufacturing process while simultaneously driving down the cost. According to some studies, the cost has been reduced by 97 percent.

The aim of batch-printing prosthetic eyes is to provide more affordable prosthetic eyes to developing nations. Some countries, namely India, has already shown an interest in the product. Fripp Design and Research, in conjunction with Manchester Metropolitan University, hopes to implement the use of their printed eyes by early 2015.

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