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3D Printing for Vision

Posted by Ilena Di Toro | Posted on February 21, 2023

3D Printing is a manufacturing method whereby a three-dimensional object is created layer by layer. This process is used in the aerospace and automotive industries and for biomedical use. One way 3D Printing is used for biomedical purposes is for vision. Baylor University used 3D Printing as a way for blind and low vision persons to participate more fully in chemistry education. Also, three teams won the National Institutes of Health’s 3D Organoid Challenge by creating retinas in a dish.

Starting with Baylor University, researchers used a 19th century art form known as lithophane, whereby an image appears on a piece of porcelain when it is backlit and 21st century 3D Printing to allow both blind and sighted persons to visualize the same data.

The subjects were a mix of persons who can see and persons who are blind. Four blind subjects have earned PhD degrees in chemistry and one blind person was an undergraduate at Baylor who experienced vision loss as a senior in high school. The blind persons are co-authors of this study but did not participate in the design of the dataset.

The study was published in the journal Science Advances and it compared how both blind and sighted persons interpret data on lithophane by touch or sight. Subjects were tested on five lithophane forms and they were: gel electropherograms, micrographs, electronic and mass spectra, and textbook illustration.

They were able to interpret all five by touch or sight with an accuracy of 79 percent. In addition, the study found that the average test accuracy for all five lithophanes were:
96.7 percent for blind tactile interpretation
92.2 percent for sighted interpretation of the back-lit lithophanes
79.8 percent for tactile interpretation from blindfolded subjects

That’s not all, for 80 percent of the data questions, the tactile accuracy of the blind chemists were equal or superior to the visual interpretation of lithophanes. This suggests that lithophanes can be used as a shareable data format. In fact, some of the blind subjects had such a degree of tactile sensitivity that they could feel the data that sighted subjects could barely see. This study shows that lithophanes can be used to make STEM more accessible for the visually impaired.

Now let us discuss things in threes, namely three teams of researchers who won the National Institutes of Health 3D Retina Organoid Challenge for creating retinas-in-a-dish. The teams were were led by Maria Valeria Canto-Soler, Ph.D. University of Colorado Anschultz Medical Campus, Aurora; Maria Natalia Vergara, Ph.D., University of Colorado Anschultz Medical Campus; and Wei Liu, Ph.D., Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York City.

The retina is a complex organ, since it has neuronal circuitry and layers of support cells that interact in order to provide functional vision. So, this challenge was designed to help researchers develop retina-in-a-dish models that can be used for both research and develop treatments for eye disease.

The team lead by Canto-Soler at the University of Colorado, which won $500,000, created a retinal organoid system that has functional photoreceptors and layers of retinal epithelial cells, which includes structures known as the outer retina. Having the layers of retinal epithelial cells suggests that this can be used as a research model for age-related macular degeneration.

The team led by Vergara at the University of Colorado, won $250,000 for the development of a retinal organoid model that is reproducible, which in turn, makes it useful for drug screening.

The team lead by Liu at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, won $125,000 for the development of a retinal organoid with all the major neuron groups, including cone photoreceptors similar to the fovea. The fovea is the part of the retina that gives humans high acuity central vision. These organoids will be useful for testing gene therapies that affect neuronal function.

So, 3D isn’t just for blockbuster movies, it can used for vision. Special glasses not required.


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