Vanessa Restrepo-Schild, a 24 year old student and researcher at Oxford University's Chemistry department recently developed a flexible synthetic retina that could offer new hope for people with visual impairments.
To date, research on artificial retinas has focused on rigid and hard materials. The new retina, which closely mimics the natural process used by the human retina, has for the first time successfully used biological and synthetic tissues developed in a laboratory. The study could revolutionise the bionic implants industry and lead to the development of less invasive technologies that are closer to human body tissues, for the purpose of treating degenerative eye diseases such as retinitis pigmentosa.
The replica retina is made from hydrogel droplets (a soft and flexible polymer whose composition is 90% water) and biological proteins from the cell membrane. Much like actual retinal cells, the synthetic cells can detect light and changes in light and convert all of it into electronic signals, creating a grayscale image. "The synthetic material can generate electrical signals that stimulate the neurons at the back of the eye, in the same way as the original retina", explained Vanessa Restrepo-Schild.
To date, the synthetic retina has only been tested under laboratory conditions. The next crucial step, aimed at demonstrating that the material functions in the same way as a bionic implant, will involve exploring potential uses with living tissue, and subsequently testing the material's ability to recognise various colours and, potentially, shapes and symbols as well.