Scientists print retinal cells for the first time

UK researchers have successfully printed cells from the retina using inkjet printing technology, providing a new way of organising cells with pinpoint precision.

Although other cells types have been printed previously, this is the first time that mature cells taken from the central nervous system have been successfully printed in this way. While experts are keen to highlight the research is still in animal models some have called it “groundbreaking work”.

The group behind the breakthrough are from theJohn van Geest Centre for Brain Repair at the University of Cambridge.
To prove the concept, the researchers took a type of cell called Retinal Ganglial Cells (RGCs) from the eyes of adult rats, and were able to print them onto plates containing a growth medium using a piezoelectric inkjet printer.
RGCs link the photoreceptors of the retina to the optic nerve – allowing the signals from the eye to be passed onto the brain for processing.

Proof of concept

Using ultra-high speed cameras which run at half a million frames per second, the researchers were able to capture the cells as they were fired out of the print nozzle. The cells were shot out of the printer nozzle at 30 miles per hour at a rate of up to 1,000 cells per second.
Professor Keith Martin, who led the research, said: “This is proof of principle that you can print these cells, and they can survive and continue to thrive and function.
“[The cells] were able to put out neuronal processes and behaved pretty much exactly the same as cells which haven’t been through this.”
The work provides evidence that not only can these mature cells from the central nervous system survive the mechanical stresses of the printing process, but that they are able to grow axons (the tails which carry nerve signals and connect to other cells) in the same way as healthy cells.
Professor Martin’s group is now working on printing RGCs onto layers of glial cells – the support cells of the nervous system. Their findings so far suggest that the RCGs print better onto these support cells than they do onto normal plates containing just the growth medium.
“It is early days,” said Professor Martin, “but the aim is to use this [technique] in neural and retinal repair.”
He added: “We’re now taking this forward to print different types of cells, and the idea is to eventually build up 3D structures.”

Clinical potential

The importance of the work, according to the team, is that it provides a new technique for precisely organising single cells in arrangements.
The technique could be used to study a range of cell-cell interactions, build up three dimensional structures, and in the future could even potentially be used to print layers of cells inside damaged eyes.    
“What we’d like to be able to do is to adapt a standard commercial printer as well,” said Professor Martin.
“In the same way you have different colours in your printer at home, you could have different types of cell in the different wells and print complex patterns of different types of cell in very precise orientations.”
Andrew Larkin, consultant ophthalmic surgeon and deputy director of the NIHR Moorfields Biomedical Centre, highlighted that the study used rat cells and that there is a long way to go before it helps patients in a clinical setting.
“The authors are very cautious in their assessment and make no claims that this is [anything] other than a methodology study,” said Mr Larkin, adding that the work “may assist further research to develop regenerative medicine approaches to disorders of the retina and nervous system in man.”
Dr Dolores Conroy, director of research for Fight for Sight, one of the organisations which funded the research, expressed that there is excitement around the potential for use in regenerative medicine. Dr Conroy said: “This is groundbreaking work, approaching treatments for eye disease from a totally new angle. We are very excited to hear what will happen at the next stage of the research.”
More information about 3D scanning of the human eye is available here.
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