Researchers in Barcelona have developed a microfluidic chip that mimics the human blood-retinal barrier. The device contains several parallel compartments, containing different cell types, to mimic the layered structure of the retina. The researchers hope to use the device to test the effect of drugs on the retina and to better study diabetic retinopathy.
At present, studying the blood-retinal barrier using conventional cell culture techniques does not accurately emulate this unique environment. “In the living organism, endothelial cells that cover the inner walls of blood vessels are exposed to the mechanical stimulus of the blood stream,” said Rosa Villa, a researcher involved in the study. “In cell cultures where this condition is not reproduced, we could say the cells are ‘sleepy’ and do not react as they would do in real conditions.”
This research team developed a streamlined solution – a microfluidic chip that contains the cells present at the blood-retinal barrier, in a unique architecture that allows cellular communication and mechanical stimuli. The chip is designed as a more accurate representation of the physiological conditions at the blood-retinal barrier, compared with conventional tissue culture flasks.
The device contains parallel compartments that emulate the layered structure of the retina. Each compartment contains a different type of cells, including endothelial cells, neuronal cells, and retinal pigmented epithelial cells. Just like in a whole organ, the device allows cellular communication, where the cells in different compartments can send chemical signals to each other through microgrooves connecting them.
“The most relevant characteristic of this technology is that it mimics what happens ‘in vivo’ in the retina and therefore can be an essential tool to boost in vitro experimentation,” said Rafael Simó, another researcher involved in the study. “On the device, the cells grow constantly in contact with a fluid. Also, the cells keep a close interaction between them by chemical mediators.”
The team plans to use the compact device to investigate the effects of various molecules on the blood-retinal barrier, to see if they can learn more about retinal diseases such as diabetic retinopathy and ways to treat them.