If you can comfortably read this, you likely do not suffer from age-related macular degeneration—blurring of the sharp "straight-ahead" vision from retinal damage. However, it's a condition that affects nearly eight million American seniors, impeding everyday activities like reading and driving.
A Temple Engineering senior design team, working with faculty advisors Dr. Peter Lelkes and Dr. Yah-el Har-el in the Department of Bioengineering, is seeking to improve on research techniques for the National Institutes of Health and National Eye Institute, to help with more complete retinal repair.
Your retina is made up of multiple layers which process incoming light, converting it to an electrical signal on its way to your brain.
"There are a lot of different layers of cells that go through that cascade and there's vasculature that's nourishing those cells," described Neil Chada (BioE, 18), one of the team members.
"With macular degeneration, a lot of those layers essentially separate. Think of it like breaking a circuit. Once that signal is broken, you can't get from that light to the image in your brain. We want to model a few of those layers on a microfluidic chip so researchers can test treatments."
Teammate Katherine Bolten added that while researchers have tried for some time to produce a full retina, replicating the Retinal Pigment Epithelial layer has been particularly tough—and what their team is focused on through in vivo testing.
To accurately recreate the environment, Bolten and Chada along with Mathew Kuruvilla, Hasan Zaidi, are designing a scaffold as a sort of go-between for cells and will serve as the means for communication.
"That's the bottom layer that reacts with the blood vessels, allowing for transport of the nutrients," she said, adding that—if physiologically accurate—the chip could be a more cost-effective and ethically-palatable option than animal testing.
Showing a 3-D printed model (pictured), Chada added that the team focused on "design aspect of senior design," and that the team picked up skills some members hadn't previously learned in areas like CAD, electrospinning and fluid dynamics.