Christ Church Student Makes First Synthetic Retina

Vanessa Restrepo-Schild, a graduate student at Christ Church and doctoral student and researcher in the Department of Chemistry, has led a team at Oxford in the development of a ground-breaking synthetic retina, which replicates the natural processes that take place in the human eye.

The study is the first to use synthetic biological tissues; previous research into artificial retinas has used hard materials which can cause scarring or inflammation in the eye, but Vanessa and the team have been able to create a replica retina made of soft water droplets (hydrogels) and biological cell membrane proteins. The cells in the artificial retina detect light and create a greyscale image, which can generate electrical signals that could stimulate the neurons at the back of the eye in the same way as an original retina.

This research, published in the journal Scientific Reports, has the potential to revolutionise the bionic implant industry, as it could allow the development of new technologies which are less invasive and damaging as they bear a closer resemblance to human body tissue, and are therefore less likely to produce an adverse reaction than traditional mechanical devices. In the future, retinas such as the one produced by Vanessa and her team could help to treat patients with degenerative eye conditions.

So far the retina has only been tested in the laboratory, so the next steps involve examining the ways in which it could be used with living tissues, to explore how the material would perform as a bionic implant. A patent for the technology has been filed, but in the meantime the team at Oxford will continue developing the retina to allow it to recognise different colours, shapes and symbols.

Vanessa is keen to continue her research into creating artificial human tissue in order to replicate vital bodily functions such as hearing, touch and sight using synthetic materials. She also hopes that her research will allow the development of more technologies that are far less wasteful than previous technology, due to being soft and biodegradable.