The future of vision may be out of this world.
LambdaVision is developing a synthetic retinal implant that could help restore sight to humans with degenerative eye diseases, and the company’s founders and principal researchers believe the microgravity environment on the International Space Station may be the key to their project.
“Right now the way that we manufacture the artificial retina is through a process called layer by layer deposition,” said Nicole Wagner, a molecular and cell biologist and LambdaVision president and CEO, and company co-founder with chemist Jordan Greco.
“That’s kind of a fancy word for dipping a substrate in multiple solutions and building a number of layers” of thin film.
Connecticut-based LambdaVision uses bacteriorhodopsin, a light-reactive protein, to replace the function of photoreceptors in the retina, the layer of the eye responsible for converting light into nerve impulses for interpretation by the brain.
It’s a process that involves moving a piece of gauze between multiple beakers hundreds of times, and sedimentation, evaporation, convection, and other factors influence how well those thin films can form. But “in a microgravity environment, you remove a lot of those,” Dr Wagner said.
An experimental, miniaturised version of LambdaVision’s synthetic retina manufacture process was aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft Nasa’s Crew-4 mission rode to the ISS on 27 April and was just one of a wide array of experiments the Crew-4 astronauts will set up or conduct over the next six months.
The Crew-4 team — Nasa astronauts Kjell Lindgren, Robert Hines, and Jessica Watkins, along with European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti — will participate in a study of how microgravity affects the human nervous system when reaching for and grasping objects, and wear smart shirts lined with sensors monitoring their hearts and blood pressure, the latter an experiment from the German Space Agency called Ballistocardiography for Extraterrestrial Applications and long-Term missions, or Beat.
The astronauts will also grow plants using hydroponic and aeroponic technologies as part of the exposed Root On-Orbit Test System (xroots) experiment, and test how well off-the-shelf terrestrial technologies identify disease-related biomarkers in liquid samples in microgravity in the rhealth one Microgravity Demonstration.
The results of the rhealth experiment could have implications for future deep space missions, such as Nasa’s journey to Mars in the late 2030s or early 2040s, where astronauts will need to carry all the medical support they might require for an entry two-year mission with them.
But for the LambdaVision experiment, according to Dr Wagner, staying in low Earth orbit, rather than going to Mars, is the goal. “The goal would be eventually to continue to manufacture on the International Space Station,” she said, or on future commercial space stations. “This is a way to sort of realize what could be the potential for a low Earth orbit economy.”
If manufacturing in microgravity helps create the thin layers of the protein necessary to build a functional retinal implant, LambdaVision could build in space synthetic tissues that could restore sight to people with conditions such as retinitis pigmentosa or macular degeneration on Earth.
“We’re still about three years out from a clinical trial, even with the work that we’re doing on the International Space Station,” Dr Wagner said, but “the ultimate goal is to get these into patients as soon as possible.”