Oxford students develop first synthetic, soft-tissue retina

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Given how fragile the windows to our souls are, it’s a wonder our eyes don’t fracture more often. And because they’re such sensitive and sophisticated things, when they do get damaged, it takes a great deal of care to fix them.

New research out of the University of Oxford may offer a safer way to bring vision back to visually impaired people. Led by doctoral student Vanessa Restrepo-Schild, the team developed a synthetic, biocompatible, soft-tissue retina that is a step forward for bionic implants.

“Previous artificial retinal research has used only rigid and hard materials,” Restrepo-Schild told Digital Trends. Due to the inherent sensitivity of our eyes, hard materials are less than ideal for implants, since they don’t suit the fluid, flexible environment of our eyes and can often lead to inflammation. By combining biological cell-membrane proteins with droplets of water and a hydrogel scaffold, Restrepo-Schild created an artificial retina that functions much like our natural ones.

“It is designed like a camera, the cells act as pixels, detecting and reacting to light to create a grey scale image,” Restrepo-Schild said. “The synthetic material can generate electrical signals, which might stimulate the neurons at the back of our eye just like the original retina.”

Restrepo-Schild explained that, while other labs typically turn to genetic engineers to adapt natural living cells, she and her team decided to stick with synthetic cells. “We are not trying to build living tissues exactly like those in the body,” she said. “We think our simplified tissues made from synthetic cells may be safer and more easily controlled than those made from living cells.”

Moving forward, Restrepo-Schild and her team will use a larger replica retina to study whether it can identify colors and shapes before conducting animals tests. A paper detailing the team’s work was published in the journal Scientific Reports.