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Invention for Innovation grant awarded to develop robotic system for retinal cellular delivery

The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) awards £1m to a team, including Institute of Ophthalmology and Moorfields, to develop a robotic system for cell delivery to the retina.

The NIHR has awarded the £1m Invention for Innovation (i4i) grant to a project led by the UCL Institute of Healthcare Engineering's Flagship Programme Leaders: Dr Christos Bergeles (UCL Faculty of Engineering Science) and Prof. Lyndon da Cruz (honorary senior lecturer, UCL Institute of Ophthalmology, and consultant ophthalmic surgeon, Moorfields Eye Hospital). They will work in collaboration with co-investigators Dr M. Jorge Cardoso and Dr Danail Stoyanov.

It will be a multidisciplinary venture with scientific, engineering and clinical input from UCL Institute of Healthcare Engineering, Wellcome EPSRC Centre for Interventional and Surgical Science (WEISS), IoO and Moorfields. The project is seeing further support through the Platform Grants scheme of WEISS, to ensure that maximum impact towards clinical translation is achieved.

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is an eye condition that affects the part of the eye responsible for central vision, known as the macula, making it difficult to see. AMD affects around a million people in the UK alone, making it one of the most common irreversible eye diseases.

However, new advances in regenerative and cellular therapies have meant that it may now be possible to restore sight loss from AMD. Researchers have been able to grow new retinal cells that could be transplanted to replace the damaged cells in the eye. Currently, delivery of these cells is performed using a hand-held needle. The manipulation required for this is very technically challenging and means that the treatment’s success depends on a surgeon’s manual skills. Further, the viewpoint of the surgeon throughout the procedure only provides access to limited visual data.

This grant will work on developing an innovative robotic system to overcome the limitations of cellular delivery. The flexible robot will steady motion and ensure sub-micrometre manipulation of delicate retinal tissue. In addition, the robotic technology will be coupled with advanced imaging techniques to allow for greater visual precision. Optical Coherence Tomography and Aniography will enable visualisation of all subretinal layers and vessels, assisting the surgeon to target the desired retinal layers.

This robotic system will enable the potential patient impact of novel therapies to be realised; assisting surgeons to deliver retinal cells with precision and impacting AMD patients’ quality of life. The i4i programme aims to advance healthcare technologies, devices and interventions for increased patient benefit in areas of clinical need.

The clinical lead on this project, Professor da Cruz, commented, “Significant progress in cellular therapy has meant that we are one step closer to restoring sight and improving AMD patients’ quality of life. However, this huge clinical advancement cannot be realised without the engineering input needed to enable effective cellular delivery. Interdisciplinary collaboration is essential to this research’s success.”

Dr Bergeles agrees, “This project is a truly multidisciplinary effort. It is a pioneering new treatment and, with millions of AMD sufferers worldwide, it has a potentially vast patient impact. Advancing successful retinal cellular delivery to become a clinical reality would be a major milestone in the capabilities of ocular research.”

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