Skip to main content

Biologists create an ‘eyeball on a chip’ that actually blinks

Penn Engineering

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Science have developed a human eye replica that’s actually capable of blinking. But don’t worry, they’re not going to team up with the researchers creating robot muscles to start assembling Skynet’s first Terminators; they’re using it as a way to develop treatment for eye diseases.

The eye in question acts very much like the real thing it’s modeled on. It features a motorized, gelatin-based eyelid that’s designed to spread moisture across its corneal surface. The eye itself is comprised of real human eye cells, which are grown on a porous scaffold created with the aid of 3D printing. The cells reflect the makeup of an actual eye, with corneal cells growing on the innermost bit, surrounded by conjunctiva, the tissue that covers the white part of our eyes. When the eye blinks, it spreads tears across the eye’s surface just like the real thing.

Related Videos

If you’re wondering why the different parts of the eye are dyed various primary colors, it’s because this enables researchers to see how the eye is responding.

“From an engineering standpoint, we found it interesting to think about the possibility of mimicking the dynamic environment of a blinking human eye,” Dan Huh, associate professor in the department of bioengineering, said in a statement. “Blinking serves to spread tears and generate a thin film that keeps the ocular surface hydrated. It also helps form a smooth refractive surface for light transmission. This was a key feature of the ocular surface that we wanted to recapitulate in our device.”

The big idea is that developing a so-called “eye-on-a-chip” makes it possible to test different treatments for eye conditions without having to do so on real organs. In doing so, it could be used to help develop treatments for ailments like dry eye disease (DED). This affects around 14% of the world’s population, but has so far proven difficult to develop effective treatments for. Since 2010, there have been 200 failed clinical drug trials for DED alone. Only two Food and Drug Administration-approved drugs are currently available for treatment.

This is just the latest organ-on-a-chip project to come out of labs. For example, at MIT engineers have developed a body-on-a-chip model which connects tissues engineered from up to 10 different organs. This allows it to mimic mechanisms throughout the human body, with the goal of working out how drugs designed to treat one specific organ might have an effect on other organs in the body.

A paper describing Penn Engineering’s eye-on-a-chip model was recently published in the journal Nature Medicine.

Editors' Recommendations

Eye care experts say multiscreen lifestyle raises risk of dry eye disease
dry eye disease increasing woman working with multiple device screens

Are you more aware of feeling your eyes? The incidence of dry eye disease is increasing, and eye care professionals blame our multiscreen lifestyles, according to the National Eye Care (Current Attitudes Related to Eye Health) Survey.

The National Eye CARE Survey was conducted by Harris Poll on behalf of Shire, a biopharmaceutical company that developed a treatment for dry eye disease. The survey polled consumers and professionals. The consumer group consisted of 1,210 U.S. adults with dry eye symptoms or diagnosed with chronic dry eye. The professional survey results included 1,015 U.S. optometrists and ophthalmologists.

Read more
Organs on a chip: the new rage in medical technology
samsung galaxy s5 hidden baby monitor feature

Dip, data, and now organs -- all things that can be found on a chip, though all of different varieties, of course. A new paper published this week in the Journal of Maternal-Fetal & Neonatal Medicine details how a team at the National Institutes of Health created a placenta on a chip, a new technique that is becoming increasingly common in the medical research community. The practice is said to be more cost-effective and less time-consuming than other methods of studying cells, like growing them in a petri dish or utilizing mature animal cells. And the placenta is only the latest organ to find its way onto a chip.

"The device," the NIH team explained in a statement, "consists of a semi-permeable membrane between two tiny chambers, one filled with maternal cells derived from a delivered placenta and the other filled with fetal cells derived from an umbilical cord." Glucose was then added to the chamber containing maternal cells, and scientists watched how the glucose moved between chambers in a process that closely resembles the manner by which nutrients pass through the placenta to a human fetus.

Read more
Researchers find a way to create computer chips from wood-derived material
wood chip scientists figure out how to make based computer components 150526123835 1 540x360 bell

Wireless chips are good for lots of things, but the environment definitely isn't one of them. Most contain gallium arsenide, a chemical toxic to the lungs of small animals, and the vast majority aren't biodegradable -- the un-recyclable parts either accumulate in landfills or undergo dangerous extraction by poorly paid laborers. And given Gartner's projection of 25 billion connected devices by 2020, the need for cleaner alternatives couldn't be more palpable. Thankfully, a solution may be just around the corner thanks to a collaboration between the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Madison-based U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Products Laboratory (FPL).

In a paper published in the journal Nature Communications, researchers at the partnered institutions describe their creation: a semiconductor chip composed almost entirely of cellulose nanofibril (CNF), a flexible, biodegradable material made from wood. You read that right: a computer part produced from trees. The key, apparently, was narrowing down the right component for substitution -- the team eventually settled on the support layer (substrate) of the computer chip because "a majority of material in a chip is support," UW-Madison electrical and computer engineering professor Zhenjiang "Jack" Ma told Science Daily. "We only use less than a couple of micrometers for everything else."

Read more