The US Food and Drug Administration in 2013 approved the world’s first artificial retina for people with severe cases of retinitis pigmentosa. But the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System, just like its name, is cumbersome and expensive.Vanessa Restrepo-Schild, a 24-year-old doctoral student and researcher at Oxford University, has a better solution. The first to successfully use biological, synthetic tissues developed in a lab, Restrepo-Schild could revolutionize the bionic implant industry. A step up from the rigid materials typically used in artificial retinal research, her development of less invasive technology may better treat degenerative eye conditions like retinitis pigmentosa (RP).Situated at the back of the eye, the retina converts light into electrical signals, which travel through the nervous system and trigger a response from the brain. Folks with a degenerative eye disease like RP, however, suffer severe vision impairment due to retinal dystrophy.Restrepo-Schild hopes to reverse those effects with her synthetic, double-layered retina replica that more closely resembles human body tissues. Made of soft water droplets (hydrogels) and biological cell membrane proteins, the natural, biodegradable materials are less invasive, and less likely to have an adverse reaction on the body.“The human eye is incredibly sensitive, which is why foreign bodies like metal retinal implants can be so damaging, leading to inflammation and/or scarring,” Restrepo-Schild said.This softer, more eye-friendly synthetic material generates electrical signals, “which might stimulate the neurons at the back of our eye just like the original retina,” according to the Colombian native.While the synthetic retina has, so far, been tested only in laboratory conditions, the young inventor plans to continue exploring potential uses with living tissues, in an effort to demonstrate how the material performs as a bionic implant.“I have always been fascinated by the human body, and want to prove that current technology can be used to replicate the function of human tissues, without having to actually use living cells,” said Restrepo-Schild, who has filed a patent for her technology.“I want to take the principles behind vital bodily functions, e.g. our sense of hearing, touch, and the ability to detect light, and replicate them in a laboratory environment with natural, synthetic components,” she continued. “I hope my research is the first step in a journey towards building technology that is soft and biodegradable instead of hard and wasteful.”Moving forward, the Oxford team will expand the replica’s function to include recognizing different colors, and potentially shapes and symbols. Eventually, research will expand to include animal testing and a series of clinical trials on humans.