The human eye is an amazing organ: the retina contains millions of light-sensitive photoreceptors that register light particles (photons) funneled in from the cornea and the pupil. The photoreceptors convert the light into electrical signals that travel to the brain via the central nervous system. All the parts of the eye work together much like a camera lens to process and differentiate between up to 10 million colors.
With so many pieces coming together to make a functioning eye, it doesn’t seem possible for scientists to replicate these functionalities in an artificial model. Yet, scientists have a way of making the seemingly impossible, possible. I came across two fascinating stories about advancements in eye research and thought I would share them here.
Researchers have made groundbreaking progress in the field of optometry by developing the world’s first artificial retina from soft synthetic tissue. The artificial retina, composed of water-based hydrogel droplets and light-sensitive proteins, is designed to mimic its biological counterpart by detecting light patterns in black and white.
Scientists have a long way to go before developing a model that can detect colors and be used to treat patients faced with retinal degeneration; however, this research is a major step in the right direction. This soft tissue synthetic retina is not the first artificial retina ever designed, but it is the first of its kind. Other bionic eye models that respond to light in the absence of healthy photoreceptor cells can be abrasive when implanted into the eye, causing inflammation and scarring. This model is designed to have a more natural fit. It’s likely only a matter of time before the synthetic implant will be tested on animal subjects, and eventually in human clinical trials.
If that first story wasn’t interesting enough for you, scientists also recently performed the first eye surgery done completely by a robot. While many surgeries involve robotic mechanisms, because eye surgery is so delicate and precise, only highly skilled surgeons have performed the surgery until now. The eye is so sensitive that even the pulsing of blood through the surgeon’s hands is enough to affect the accuracy of the cut; the tiniest imprecise movement can cause permanent damage in the form of hemorrhaging and scarring in a surgery intended to improve eyesight.
In this first-of-its-kind surgery, the robot operates within the human eye to to transcend human accuracy in removing fine membrane growth on the the retina that can lead to blindness. The surgery was performed in a UK hospital where 6 of 12 patients underwent the traditional procedure and 6 underwent the robotic procedure. Among this trial group, the patients receiving the robotic surgery experienced significantly fewer hemorrhages and damage to the retina than the patients receiving the surgery from human surgeons. According to lead researcher Dr. Robert E. MacLaren, this surgical technique is “a vision of eye surgery in the future.”