3-D Printed Retina May Cure Macular Degeneration

3-D Printed Retina May Cure Macular Degeneration

The revolution of 3D printing continues to astound with a variety of applications once considered impossible. Currently, this technology includes body parts or bio-printed ears, bones and now retinas.

It is the thing of Sci-Fi movies but printing something as essential as a retina and replacing a diseased one means no more macular degeneration or other eye diseases for that matter. 3-D bio-printing offers replacement organs at a fraction of the cost compared to growing them in a lab from inception. In addition, these organs are more precise due to exact computer modeled imaging that allows for perfect fits. Plus, it buys more time for researchers to find a cause and cure. Some estimate that retina (and other organ) replacement, disease may soon become a rarity.

Either way, this is good news for the rising prevalence of macular degeneration one of the leading causes of blindness worldwide. With such rapid advancement, 3-D printed retina may cure macular degeneration.

Inception and Rise of 3D Printed Eye Cells

Back in 2013, researchers at The University of Cambridge successfully printed eye cells. An inkjet printer was used to print living retinal cells of adult rats. These cells could then be built upon one another to eventually replace compromised eye tissue.

According to researcher, professor Keith Martin,

“We’ve demonstrated that you can take cells from the retina and you can effectively separate them out. These can be put in an inkjet printer and we can print those cells out in any pattern we like and we’ve shown that those cells can survive and thrive.”

Three years later, a study titled ‘Three-dimensional printing of the retina’ published in Current Opinions in Ophthalmology (2016 May; 27(3): 262–267) concluded,

“Recent advances in the construction of cellular three-dimensional structures have provided encouraging advances potentially relevant to the creation of a three-dimensional printed retina. In addition, it has recently been shown that certain mammalian retinal cells, adult rat retinal ganglion cells, and glia, can be successfully printed without loss of viability and certain phenotypic [observable genetic] features. These findings now need to be translated to other cell types of the retina and to human tissue.”

In May of 2017, a study consisting of successful retinal cell grafts attached to an intricate biological scaffolding was developed by researchers at the Stephen A. Wynn Institute for Vision Research, Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, Carver College of Medicine, The University of Iowa.

Their study concluded that,

“Our findings demonstrate the feasibility of using two-photon polymerization to create scaffolds that can align neuronal cells in 3-D and are large enough to be used for transplantation. In future work, these scaffolds could comprise biodegradable materials with tunable microstructure, elastic modulus and degradation time; a significant step towards a promising treatment option for those suffering from late-stage neurodegeneration, including retinal degenerative blindness.”

Research is now closer to the reality of replacing a diseased retina with a 3-D printed model that some believe could function more optimally than nature intended. Once it is rolled out as a successful, scalable application, macular degeneration may be stopped in its tracks.

NEI Awards $90,000 

Battling macular degeneration by slowing its progress is the most successful result so far. However, replacing the retina could stop the disease with some theorizing the potential to “wire” a replacement impervious to macular degeneration altogether.

The National Eye Institute recently awarded $90,000 to 3-D printing retina development research at the University of Maryland (UMD).

Titled the 3-D Retina Organoid Challenge (3-D ROC), the NEI cites that teams were eligible based on innovation and feasibility in aiding the effort to combat the development of age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy, and other eye-related conditions.

Jessica Mazerik, Health Science Administrator with the NEI, commented on what 3-D ROC looks for in research candidates,

“We want something very functional that recapitulates the structure and morphology, and eventually, hopefully, it can be commercialized and broadly used by the research community and companies. We want something that can be used a little bit more broadly and then that can also be picked up by pharmaceutical companies and used for drug screening drug validation and toxicology screening, and hopefully, modeling diseases.”

UMD’s winning team led by Erin Lavik, ScD (Doctor of Science) stated in their submitted proposal,

“It is simple, reproducible, and highly scalable, [] We have shown that we can print both a range of gels and cells in complex patterns with high resolution and reproducibility, This allows us to recapitulate the layers of the retina and to provide the matrix cues to promote the critical polarization of the cells types and promote the formation of appropriate synapses in the system, and enhanced survival of target neurons.”

This proposal was chosen amongst honorable mentions to Northeastern University; University of Wisconsin-Madison; Albert Einstein College of Medicine; University of Miami; and the Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology.

On the Horizon

NEI Director Paul A. Sieving, MD, PhD. commented on the enormous efforts put forth by these University teams which, regardless of receiving an award, will inevitably advance science while saving vision loss for millions,

“We intend for these concepts to push the development of retinal organoids. If developed, these next-generation human retina models would be invaluable resources for researchers in academia and industry,”

One of the biggest obstacles has been keeping scaffolded tissue alive once printed as it requires constant oxygenation and nutrition replenishment. Getting these requirements into the organ has been a challenge. Now, researchers have created ‘micro-channels’ which act like a sponge enabling nutrients to penetrate the tissue more readily.

It seems that just like a knee or hip, 3-D printed retinal replacement is going to soon be a reality. This technology on the horizon may be one of the most rapid applications with such an enormous result ever.

Using biologically 3-D printed organisms is the future of medicine. Going beyond studies and experiments that in the past would have taken years to develop such results is a veritable medical revolution. These advancements are giving more hope to those struggling with many health issues including macular degeneration as well as other eye diseases.