Regenerative medicine meets 3D printing for precision cell transplants

Restoring vision: could it become possible?

Restoring vision in the blind or partially sighted has been a dream of medical practitioners for centuries. Now, modern day advances in cell culture and transplant means this vision is ever closer to reality. The University of Liverpool is applying the latest regenerative medicine technology combined with 3D printing to replace retinal cells in the eyes, bringing hope and vision to hundreds of thousands of people in the UK, and potentially millions across the world, who currently face a future with no treatment options.

The university’s Department of Eye and Vision Science and St. Paul’s Eye Unit at the Royal Liverpool University Hospital are collaborating to develop a cell transplant delivery device for many conditions. Treating age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is of particular interest because it is the most common cause of sight loss in the western world, currently affecting more than 600,000 people in the UK.

“The complexity and sensitivity of the eye means that cell transplants will always be technically challenging surgery”, says University of Liverpool ocular biomaterials researcher Dr Victoria Kearns. “We’re designing a system to deliver cells to the back of the eye on the back of more than 10 years research,” she says.

What does the approach involve?

Their innovative approach cultures retinal cells for transplant on a layer of Gore-Tex (polytetrafluoroethylene), the material commonly used in waterproof clothing. Treating the Gore-Tex with charged gas plasma makes cells bind to, rather than be repelled by, the material. It is biocompatible and already safely used in medicine, including for eye operations such as for glaucoma. Using this material helps to protect the integrity of the tiny patch of cells just a few millimetres square, and continues to support the cells once they’re in the eye.

Next comes the device that must deliver the layer of cells. Kearns has been working with the University’s engineering department to adapt existing surgical instruments, using 3D printing to create parts for a specialised depositor to perfectly place the cells first time. “It's going to be like a special injector that will help us keep the sheet of cells flat, and then release them in the precise place without ever having to be repositioned,” says Kearns.

She adds that the close working relationship between multidisciplinary scientists is crucial. “You really need to have surgeons and engineers working iteratively together. You need constant input from both sides.”

At present, Kearns’ group is replacing like with like and using retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells and RPE-like cells. But she says the technology could be used by clinical research groups all around the world, applied to other cell types, organs and operations for maximum patient benefit.

This research is funded to £770,000 by a consortium of charities including The Linbury Trust, the Foundation for the Prevention of Blindness and St Paul’s Eye Unit, Royal Liverpool University Hospital.

To find out more about our innovative approach contact Dr Victoria Kearns and visit our research group pages.