The Cambridge University team says it paves the way for grow-your-own therapies for people with damage to the light-sensitive layer of tissue at back of the eye – the retina.
At the moment the results are preliminary and show that an inkjet printer can be used to print two types of cells from the retina of adult rats―ganglion cells and glial cells.
These are the cells that transmit information from the eye to certain parts of the brain, and provide support and protection for neurons.
The printed cells remained healthy and retained their ability to survive and grow in culture.
Co-authors of the study Prof Keith Martin and Dr Barbara Lorber, from the John van Geest Centre for Brain Repair at the University of Cambridge, said: “The loss of nerve cells in the retina is a feature of many blinding eye diseases. The retina is an exquisitely organised structure where the precise arrangement of cells in relation to one another is critical for effective visual function.
“Our study has shown, for the first time, that cells derived from the mature central nervous system, the eye, can be printed using a piezoelectric inkjet printer. Although our results are preliminary and much more work is still required, the aim is to develop this technology for use in retinal repair in the future.”
They now plan to attempt to print other types of retinal cells, including the light-sensitive photoreceptors – rods and cones.
Scientists have already been able to reverse blindness in mice using stem cell transplants.
And there is promising work into electronic retina implants in patients.
Clara Eaglen, of the RNIB, said: “Clearly it’s still at a very early stage and further research is needed to develop this technology for use in repairing the retina in humans.
“The key to this research, once the technology has moved on, will be how much useful vision is restored.
“Even a small bit of sight can make a real difference, for some people it could be the difference between leaving the house on their own or not.
“It could help boost people’s confidence and in turn their independence.”