Researchers at LambdaVision and the University of Connecticut (UConn) are using a protein naturally found in saltwater to develop a revolutionary retinal implant. If all goes well, this new retinal implant could potentially cure many retina-related blinding diseases.
The protein researchers are using to develop this retinal implant is called bacteriorhodopsin. Bacteriorhodopsin helps naturally convert light into energy and is produced by a 3.5 billion-year-old microbe known as Halobacterium salinarum.
To make this retinal implant, doctors first create a scaffold structure out of polyester fibers. This structure is then plunged in and out of a purple protein mixture 200 times. After hundreds of dips, a membrane film about a tenth of the size of a contact lens starts to form on the polyester mesh.
On average, it takes researchers between two to three days to create one implant. All of this work is done with the help of robotic hands in one of LambdaVision's labs.
Robert Birge, the UConn chemist who co-founded LambdaVision, came up with the idea of using bacteriorhodopsin as retinal implants about 15 years ago. Dr. Birge has been studying bacteriorhodopsin for over 35 years.
This past October, Dr. Birge conducted his first animal test of these bacteriorhodopsin implants on pigs' eyes. Two other UConn researchers closely involved in this study were Jordan Greco and Nicole Wagner.
To place the bacteriorhodopsin implants into the pigs' eyes, surgeons had to make a slight incision by the retina, pull up the lens, and gently place the implant in the back of the eyes.
The researchers have successfully placed these retinal implants in rats earlier this year. It will take awhile to see whether or not the bacteriorhodopsin implants healed the pigs' retinal disorders.
Both Greco and Wagner joined Dr. Birge's LambdaVision when they were graduate students at UConn. Wagner is now the CEO of the company and Greco serves as the chief scientific officer.
Wagner believes it will take at least two to three years before LambdaVision tests their retinal prosthetics in human samples. She also said she hopes these implants can one day cure blindness in people who have advanced stages of age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and retinitis pigmentosa.
While they are waiting to get approval for a clinical trial, researchers at LambdaVision are teaming up with NASA to send their dipping machines into outer space. NASA executives believe that LambdaVision's machines could produce hundreds of prosthetics per day in microgravity. Both the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space and Boeing are backing this NASA project.
Besides retinal implants, researchers believe bacteriorhodopsin will have numerous applications in the fields of tech and healthcare in the future. A few ideas Dr. Birge has for using bacteriorhodopsin include a portable computer storage device and a satellite tracker. Other potential uses of bacteriorhodopsin include cleaning the water supply and better diagnosing diseases like influenza.