A student at Oxford University has pioneered a synthetic retina made of biodegradable materials for people suffering from degenerative eye conditions.

In place of the hard materials commonly used, Vanessa Restrepo-Schild has developed an alternative in the lab with ‘soft water droplets (hydrogels) and biological cell membrane proteins’.

“The synthetic material can generate electrical signals, which stimulate the neurons at the back of our eye just like the original retina,” she said.

“The human eye is incredibly sensitive, which is why foreign bodies like metal retinal implants can be so damaging, leading to inflammation and scaring. But a biological synthetic implant is soft and water based, so much more friendly to the eye environment.”

Explaining what inspires her work in this area, Miss Restrepo-Schild added: “I have always been fascinated by the human body, and want to prove that current technology could be used to replicate the function of human tissues, without having to actually use living cells.

“I have taken the principals behind vital bodily functions, e.g. our sense of hearing, touch and the ability to detect light, and replicated them in a laboratory environment with natural, synthetic components. I hope my research is the first step in a journey towards building technology that is soft and biodegradable instead of hard and wasteful.”

A patent has been filed for the technology and the team at Oxford will begin testing larger replicas and increasing its capabilities as it works towards trialling it on humans in the future.

The Colombian’s research is published in the journal Scientific Reports.