The proof-of-principle work in the journal Biofabrication was carried out using animal cells.
The Cambridge University team says it paves the way for grow-your-own therapies for people with damage to the light-sensitive layer of tissue at back of the eye – the retina.
More tests are needed before human trials can begin.
This is a step in the right direction as the retina is often affected in many of the common eye conditions, causing loss of central vision which stops people watching TV and seeing the faces of loved ones”
Clara Eaglen of the RNIB
At the moment the results are preliminary and show that an inkjet printer can be used to print two types of cells from the retina of adult rats―ganglion cells and glial cells.
These are the cells that transmit information from the eye to certain parts of the brain, and provide support and protection for neurons.
The printed cells remained healthy and retained their ability to survive and grow in culture.
Co-authors of the study Prof Keith Martin and Dr Barbara Lorber, from the John van Geest Centre for Brain Repair at the University of Cambridge, said: “The loss of nerve cells in the retina is a feature of many blinding eye diseases. The retina is an exquisitely organised structure where the precise arrangement of cells in relation to one another is critical for effective visual function.
“Our study has shown, for the first time, that cells derived from the mature central nervous system, the eye, can be printed using a piezoelectric inkjet printer. Although our results are preliminary and much more work is still required, the aim is to develop this technology for use in retinal repair in the future.”
They now plan to attempt to print other types of retinal cells, including the light-sensitive photoreceptors – rods and cones.
Scientists have already been able to reverse blindness in mice using stem cell transplants.
And there is promising work into electronic retina implants implants in patients.
Clara Eaglen, of the RNIB, said: “Clearly it’s still at a very early stage and further research is needed to develop this technology for use in repairing the retina in humans.
“The key to this research, once the technology has moved on, will be how much useful vision is restored.
“Even a small bit of sight can make a real difference, for some people it could be the difference between leaving the house on their own or not.
“It could help boost people’s confidence and in turn their independence.”
Prof Jim Bainbridge of London’s Moorfields Eye Hospital said: “The finding that eye cells can survive the printing process suggests the exciting possibility that this technique could be used in the future to create organised tissues for regeneration of the eye and restoration of sight.
“Blindness is commonly caused by degeneration of nerve cells in the eye. In recent years there has been substantial progress towards the development of new treatments involving cell transplantation.”