European physicists team up with a leading company to develop an artificial retina based on the remarkable properties of graphene. Retina implants could help restore vision in people suffering degenerative eye disease.
Made of a single layer of carbon atoms, graphene has been hailed as a ‘wonder material’ for many applications, especially within medical technologies. It’s thin, transparent and hundreds of times stronger than steel. It conducts electricity better than copper. It’s these properties that a team of researchers is taking advantage of to produce key elements of an artificial retina.
“One of the main aspects of this project is to develop flexible graphene-based sensors that are able to detect the electrical activity in the retina, such that stimulation can be properly adjusted,” says project leader Jose Garrido from Technische Universität München (TUM).
Graphene as a messenger between prosthetic retina and optical nerves
Retina implants can serve as optical prostheses for blind people whose optical nerves are still intact. The implants convert incoming light into electrical impulses that are transmitted to the brain via the optical nerve. There, the information is transformed into images. Although various approaches for implants exist today, the devices are often rejected by the body and the signals transmitted to the brain are generally not optimal, according to a TUM press release.
In contrast to the traditionally used materials, graphene has excellent biocompatibility thanks to its great flexibility and chemical durability. With its outstanding electronic properties, graphene provides an efficient interface for communication between the retina prosthesis and nerve tissue.
“A myriad of challenges”
Before a product can be developed, the graphene-sensors need to be properly integrated with the currently used stimulating electrodes. “There is a myriad of challenges to be overcome,” Garrido says.
“Our goal within the next 18 months is to test the technology of flexible graphene devices in vitro and in vivo (in rodents). The animal studies will be conducted at the Vision Institute in Paris, who is one of our partners in this project. Within this time, we also plan some accelerated stability tests for the devices.”
The researchers recently secured a place for the project in EU’s €1 billion Graphene Flagship Program, from which they expect to secure financial support for the next five to seven years.
“It’s within this time frame that we plan to further develop our technology from the prototype stage towards clinical tests and finally towards commercialisation,” Garrido says. “The presence of Pixium Vision in our consortium, a leading European company developing visual restoration systems, is a great asset for our project, attesting the interest of industry in these technologies.”
by Lillian Sando