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Artificial retinas may be first product made in space

Artificial retinas made in space look better than retinas made on Earth - suggesting that a solution to a leading cause of blindness could be one of the first products produced on tomorrow's commercial space stations.

Vision 101: After light enters the eye, it travels to the retina — a thin layer at the back of the organ — where light-sensitive cells called photoreceptors convert it into electrical signals. Signals are then sent to the brain for interpretation.

Many eye diseases cause loss of photoreceptors, leading to vision problems or even blindness. They affect millions of people, and there are no known treatments for the most common ones: retinitis pigmentosa and age-related macular degeneration.

Even a force as light as the pull of gravity during manufacturing can lead to imperfections.

Artificial retinas: Connecticut startup LambdaVision is using a light-activated protein called "bacteriorhodopsin" to create an artificial retina. The hope is that the devices will one day restore vision to people with retinal degeneration by replenishing their damaged photoreceptors.

"Activated by light entering the eye, the artificial retina pumps protons to the bipolar and ganglion cells," explains LambdaVision CEO Nicole Wagner. "Receptors on those cells detect protons, which prompt them to send signals to the optic nerve, where they travel to the brain."

Space Build: Each artificial retina consists of 200 layers of retinal membrane protein. The more uniform these layers are, the better the implant will function, but even a light force such as the pull of gravity during manufacturing can create imperfections.

In search of flawless protein layers, LambdaVision decided to explore the feasibility of manufacturing its artificial retina in space, hoping that the microgravity environment on satellites would yield better products.

The company teamed up with Space Tango, a space-based research firm, to design the experiment using CubeLab, a boot-box-sized container packed with all the automated systems needed to conduct experiments with near-real-time input from Earth.

Backed by a $5 million commercialization grant from NASA, it sent its first CubeLab to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2018, and four others followed.

"[We're looking at] how do you do this reproducibly and with the highest quality possible," Wagner said.

The fifth CubeLab is now back on Earth, and according to LambdaVision's initial analysis, its 200-layer films were more uniform than the controls they produced on Earth.

This fifth experiment was the most autonomous yet — the technology produced films almost entirely on its own, with LambdaVision's researchers having to repeatedly intervene in the early CubeLabs.

Looking ahead: Each microgravity experiment has aided LambdaVision in its goal of meeting the FDA’s manufacturing standards for its artificial retinas by the end of 2023, and it already has three more CubeLabs scheduled to arrive at the ISS in the next year.

“We’ve made a lot of progress, but there’s still work to be done,” said Wagner. “We’re continuing to look at the parameters, we’re continuing to develop these assays. But having made the 200-layer film in microgravity is a big milestone.”

LambaVision hopes to have artificial retinas ready in 2024 for trials involving patients with advanced retinitis pigmentosa. If it goes well, tests will be done to treat age-related macular degeneration.

Finally, there are plans to work with commercial partners to build implants in space.

"There is a lot of promise in continuing this work in a microgravity environment," Wagner told the Financial Times. “But the ISS is a research laboratory. Commercial space stations will have more capacity. They will be designed with the future in mind.”

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