Up until recently, all synthetic retinas have been made using hard and rigid materials, while remaining largely within the confines of laboratory research. The next step necessitates the development of a soft and flexible synthetic retina before it can be practically utilised for individuals with visual impairment.
Fortunately, a team of researchers at the University of Oxford have successfully proven the viability of biological synthetic tissue for human use in a study that was published recently this year.

Soft, flexible retinas created with synthetic tissues

Led by 24-year-old student Vanessa Restrepo-Schild, the researchers successfully developed a synthetic retina which closely mimics the human retinal process. Where previous synthetic retinas were hard and rigid, the new synthetic retina is soft and flexible.

The team made this possible by combining soft water droplets (hydrogels) and a light-driven proton pump (bacteriorhodopsin) within a lipid bilayer structure. As the human eye is incredibly sensitive, the use of hydrogels allows it to be friendlier towards the environment of the eye – resulting in less of an adverse body reaction towards the foreign object, i.e. the bio-pixel.

While this may sound complicated, what the team has developed is no different from a micro-camera within a water droplet. Similar to a camera which captures light and translates it into pixels, these water droplets are able to capture light and translate it into electrical signals.
As such, these water droplets have been aptly named bio-pixels. Initial testing demonstrated the bio-pixel’s ability to detect grey-scale images and patterns of moving light which were then translated into electrical current. With this proof of concept in place, the team’s goal is now to interface the synthetic retina with living tissue and devise a way to convert the electrical signals into neural signals.

Implications of the discovery

This marks a step forward in the field of synthetic human tissue and organs. Although this research is still in its early stages, it offers new hope for the visually impaired. For now, animal testing remains to be the next viable step before clinical trials in humans can begin.

Meanwhile, the team also plans to improve on the performance of the bio-pixel by allowing for recognition of colour images.

By expanding upon the current model and upscaling it in terms of size, the team will test the synthetic retina’s ability to recognise different colours, and potentially, even shapes and symbols. For now, the team has filed a patent for the technology behind this synthetic retina before moving onto the next stage of research.

"I hope my research is the first step in a journey towards building technology that is soft and biodegradable instead of hard and wasteful," said Restrepo-Schild.

While presently only demonstrable in a laboratory setting, the researchers have great hope in the development of this new technology. With continued investment and research, the field of synthetic human tissue has the potential to be the medical modalities of the future. Or in this case, the future of sight for those deprived of it. MIMS

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