Could a 3D Printer Make Eye Cells that Cure Blindness?


When the 3D printer world collides with the medical world, amazing things are in store.

It didn’t take long for 3D printer designs to move away from gadgets and guns, and into the much more exciting field of biomedical technology. Now, researchers at the University of Cambridge claim that their work with 3D printed eye cells could one day rid the world of blindness.

In late December, scientists at the University announced that they had 3D printed two types of cells from the retina of adult rats―ganglion cells and glial cells – for the very first time in history. “This is the first time the technology has been used successfully to print mature central nervous system cells and the results showed that printed cells remained healthy and retained their ability to survive and grow in culture,” stated a University press release.

To prove that 3D printed eye cells could be a worthy replacement for those we’re born with, “the researchers used a piezoelectric inkjet printer device that ejected the cells through a sub-millimetre diameter nozzle when a specific electrical pulse was applied. They also used high speed video technology to record the printing process with high resolution and optimised [sic] their procedures accordingly,” explains the same press release.

Besides being absolutely mind-blowing, the proof-of-principle achievement has big implications for the field of regenerative medicine. “The loss of nerve cells in the retina is a feature of many blinding eye diseases,” explain study co-authors Professor Keith Martin and Dr. Barbara Lorber, both from the John van Geest Centre for Brain Repair. “The retina is an exquisitely organised structure where the precise arrangement of cells in relation to one another is critical for effective visual function.” The ability to fabricate these essential cells in a laboratory could be key to developing treatments that could reverse the effects of blinding eye diseases, effectively restoring sight for those who thought they would never see again.

“We plan to extend this study to print other cells of the retina and to investigate if light-sensitive photoreceptors can be successfully printed using inkjet technology. In addition, we would like to further develop our printing process to be suitable for commercial, multi-nozzle print heads,” said Professor Martin.

Eye cells are only one body part that can now be created in a laboratory. Working ears, kidneys, and even a trachea have been 3D printed, grown or otherwise fabricated outside the womb.

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Image: Michele Catania