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Researchers take aim at vision loss with nano technology

INDIANAPOLIS—Researchers from Indiana University School of Medicine and the Purdue School of Engineering and Technology at IUPUI are developing a solution for those experiencing vision impairment, thanks to a new $450,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health.

More than 250 million people worldwide have vision impairment through blindness or other conditions like macular degeneration. There is no cure for macular degeneration, and treatment options are limited. With this new, two-year grant, researchers plan to create an artificial device that can restore vision in these patients using innovative new technology. 

"The retina is the sensor of light, and loss of photoreceptor cells is the major cause of blindness in children and adults," said Amir Hajrasouliha, MD, an assistant professor of ophthalmology. "Our eye works like an old camera. Photoreceptors sense different signals of light, whether in contrast or different colors, then they generate a signal and pass it through the optic nerve to pass to the brain. Different diseases can cause photoreceptor loss, leading to blindness."

The novel neurosensory device will use light-to-electric conversion nanoparticles to interface directly with retinal ganglion cells (RGCs) to restore vision in patients with loss of photoreceptors. This innovative technique has been tested in a laboratory setting over the last several years.

"The study is in its early stages, but the preliminary work has been promising and shows us that we can use this phenomenon to sense the light," Hajrasouliha said. "The goal is to improve the signal generated by this artificial retina for best resolution."

"The principal operation of this device is based on fundamental engineering advancement to create an all-optical light switch that enables generation of light pulses through a self-resetting technique at a frequency that matches the operation of the photoreceptors," said Afshin Izadian, PhD, associate professor of electrical engineering and technology. "We are trying to harness the physical property of nanoparticles and adapt it to mimic the operation of retinal photoreceptors. This will enable the formation of pictures in the brain at high resolution, improving the eyesight of impaired eyes."

While many patients with vision impairment are experiencing macular degeneration, researchers hope this work can help those with various conditions, even if their vision impairment is caused by genetic issues.

"We are not just aiming for one gene mutation or one disease of a gene," Hajrasouliha said. "It's something that can apply to many categories of gene mutations and retinal degenerations."

While the project is still in the initial phase of the study, researchers look forward to further development and testing of the device to determine when and how it can be used in patients in a clinical setting.

"Our future discoveries in this field will help us evaluate clinical relevance and will open new horizons in treating low vision," Izadian said. "This project is an example of our long-time collaboration at the school of engineering and medicine. Collaboration of researchers with diverse backgrounds has proven to be effective, and we hope that this collaboration continues in the future.”

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About IU School of Medicine

IU School of Medicine is the largest medical school in the U.S. and is annually ranked among the top medical schools in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. The school offers high-quality medical education, access to leading medical research, and rich campus life in nine Indiana cities, including rural and urban locations consistently recognized for livability.

About the Purdue School of Engineering and Technology

The Purdue School of Engineering and Technology at IUPUI is regarded as one of America's premier urban schools of engineering and technology. It offers undergraduate and graduate degree programs that prepare students for careers in a global economy, and is recognized regionally, nationally, and internationally for its excellence in teaching and learning, research and creative activities, and community engagement.