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Professor Gordon Wallace (R)
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Helen Carter

It sounds like something from a science fiction movie—3-D printers in the future may be able to print living cells and living implants such as artificial retinas, an optometry conference will hear this month.

Experts say the technology could also enable regrowth of layers of the eye and rebuilding of corneas and optic nerves.

Professor Gordon Wallace is director of the University of Wollongong’s Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science. He will provide an insight into three-dimensional printing and its potential uses at the Australian College of Optometry national conference in Melbourne on 18-19 October.

Professor Wallace, a leading scientist in the field of electromaterials and pioneer in the emerging field of nanobionics, hopes to use the ability to print living cells to create living implants that might treat eye disease.

The Clinical Director of Ophthalmology at the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital and Principal Research Fellow at the Centre for Eye Research Australia, Associate Professor Michael Coote, and Professor Wallace have already created and are testing a 3-D printed system to try to work out why glaucoma implants sometimes fail.

Professor Wallace will discuss 3-D printing of living cells in bio-ink, a liquid-like material containing living cells. To make bio-ink, scientists create a formulation containing cells loaded into a cartridge and inserted into the printer.

The formulation may contain a support structure (bio-polymer) that can be delivered simultaneously from a parallel cartridge during the printing process through bio-paper to create a solid structure of living cells.

‘We can use this approach to place living cells where we want them within the 3-D support structure,’ Professor Wallace said.

‘In the long term, we envisage the ability to print three-dimensional artificial retinas to treat diseases of the retina. Of course, there are some significant challenges to be overcome to allow us to achieve that,’ he said.

Professor Coote described 3-D printing as ‘very clever technology’.

‘A nano-revolution is coming,’ he said. ‘In future the technology will be able to regrow layers of the eye, replace areas of retinal pigmentation and potentially rebuild corneas and optic nerves.

‘Research that Professor Wallace is doing is growing nerves using plastic tubes coated inside with nerve growth factors. The tube erodes and the nerve is left.

‘Muscles will eventually be able to be grown so we can have ocular muscles, and we will be able to replace blood vessels, nerves and tissue at a cellular level. We will be able to print artificial eyes and cells as an alternative to animal or human models for learning and research,’ Professor Coote said.

Professor Wallace said specific software would enable patients and optometrists to design and manufacture customised frames, and print them on 3-D printers at optometric practices.

The ACO conference will be held on 18-19 October. Visit www.aco.org.au.

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