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3D-printed eyes for the blind

3D printing technology is being used increasingly in various industries. With an increase in its applications, the price, the availability as well as the complexity of the machines has reduced. 3D printers are becoming more and more commonplace and will soon be used as an everyday household item. Currently they can be found in many schools and businesses across the globe, performing a variety of jobs, from serving as a creative teaching tool to prototyping the latest designs. However, one of the most important uses of this technology is within the field of medicine.

The medical application of 3D printing is expanding and could soon revolutionise the healthcare industry. The medical application of 3D printing can be classified into several categories, some of which include: tissue and organ fabrication; creation of customized prosthetics, implants and anatomical parts; and pharmaceutical research regarding drug dosage forms, delivery and discovery. The application of 3D printing in the medical field can provide many benefits including: the customization and personalization of medical products, drugs and equipment; cost-effectiveness; increased productivity; the democratisation of design and manufacturing; and enhanced collaboration, Contrastingly, it should be cautioned that despite recent significant and exciting medical advances involving 3D printing, there are many notable areas in the medical field where there is need to explore more options.

The most common material used in 3D printing till date is plastic. It’s cheap, easily mould-able and recyclable. Although, the usage of plastic, or any single material, limits the designer, not only in medical research, but in any industry. So to expand on the possibilities, scientists and engineers have invented a number of 3D printers that can be used to print anything from human tissue to electronic components, bringing the concepts of bionic parts and curing blindness closer to reality than it ever was before. Currently it is being used to print customised eyeglass frames. With basic knowledge of CAD, one can successfully print the perfect set of frames that are tailored to your face and personal style.

Many advanced eye research institutes are working on building prosthetic eyes using 3D printers. Prosthetic eyes must be shaped to fit the individual’s eye socket shape exactly to be the comfortable and not lead to long-term facial deformity. With high-resolution printers, ocularists can print customised eyes with multicoloured irises too.

There are many different types of retinal damage including retinal detachment, diabetes, disease, macular holes, among others. Each of these can also be caused by a variety of different factors such as heredity, health, trauma, and while scientists continue to work on preventing these causes, the idea that they could all be corrected is even more promising. If the unique multidimensional architecture of retinal cells can be built using 3D printers, the goal of rebuilding retinas and helping blind people see could be achieved in the near future.

There may also be a possibility that a person is diagnosed with anophthalmia- a type of cancer where the patients eyeballs have to be surgically removed. In this case, a company in Italy is working on producing bionic eyes. Which would combine 3D printing tissue with electrical components to build a working eye that connects to a base implanted inside the eye socket which in turn, connects to the optic nerve, and thereby the brain. It includes a camera that transmits radio signals to a microchip in the back of the eye. These signals are then converted into electrical impulses, that are able to stimulate cells in the retina and connect to the optic nerve. They are then transferred to the vision processing areas of the brain, where they can be interpreted as an image that the patient can see. With the current prototypes, patients don’t exactly see the same way we do. Instead they see blob-like shapes and lights, but the technology has proven to work in allowing blind individuals to walk around unassisted. Once these trials and experiments are verified and ready to use, it will help the blind to see a whole new light.

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