Scientists inkjet-print adult eye cells for the first time

There's been a promising new breakthrough in the search for a cure from blindness. Researchers have demonstrated for the first time that an inkjet printer can be used to print adult eye cells.

Medical scientists have been putting the principles behind your standard home-office inkjet printer to the test lately. They found that replacing the ink with solutions of biological cells (like immature cells or stem cells) meant that they could print out tissues to be used as grafts, which could be a significant advancement for regenerative medicine. Grafts can be grown in solution in the lab, of course, but that's relatively easy for simpler tissues, like skin. For something like the retina of the eye, it requires a very specific pattern of optic nerve cells and the glial cells that surround and support them, for the eye to function properly. This pattern can be produced with these inkjet printing techniques, though, and now this research has shown that it can be done with adult cells.

Taking both types of cells from the retina of adult rats, they loaded them into a special piezoelectric inkjet printer with a nozzle less than a millimetre wide and printed the cells at a rate of about 100 per second into a vial, all while recording the process with high-speed video. Not only did the cells survive, despite any friction or other stresses on them that may have destroyed or deformed them during the printing process, they did just as well as batches of cells that were cultured without printing.

The only difficulty encountered in the process was that the actual number of cells that made it through the printer was reduced, compared to the non-printed cultures. The number of optic nerve cells was down 33 per cent from the original solution and the number of glial cells was down around 57 per cent. The researchers examined the printer nozzle after printing, though, and found that a lot of cells were sticking to the interior surface, so this can account for the loss of cells, rather than it being from cell destruction. According to the study, this commonly happens with these printers, and they plan on testing different modifications to overcome the problem.

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"The loss of nerve cells in the retina is a feature of many blinding eye diseases. The retina is an exquisitely organised structure where the precise arrangement of cells in relation to one another is critical for effective visual function," Professor Keith Martin and Dr. Barbara Lorber, the co-authors of the study from the University of Cambridge, said in a statement.

"Our study has shown, for the first time, that cells derived from the mature central nervous system, the eye, can be printed using a piezoelectric inkjet printer. Although our results are preliminary and much more work is still required, the aim is to develop this technology for use in retinal repair in the future."

(Photo courtesy: Getty Images)

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