Retinal degeneration is a leading cause of blindness that, with other eye diseases will affect 196 million people worldwide in 2020.
Scientists have developed a new lab-on-a-chip technology that could quickly screen potential drugs to repair damaged neurons and retinal connections.
Such damage is seen in people with macular degeneration or those who have had too much exposure to the glare of electronic screens, according to the study published in the journal Science Advances.
Researchers from Houston Methodist Research Institute in the US created a sophisticated retina cell network on a chip that is modelled after a humans neural network.
This will further the quest for finding the right drug to treat such retinal diseases, they said.
"Medical treatments have advanced but there is still no perfect drug to cure any one of these diseases. Our device can screen drugs much faster than previous technologies. With the new technology and a few years effort, the potential to develop a new drug is highly possible," said Lidong Qin, a faculty member at Houston Methodist.
Named the NN-Chip, the platform consists of many channels that can be tailored to imitate large brain cell networks as well as focus on individual neural cells, such as those found in the retina.
Using extremely bright light to selectively damage retina photoreceptors in the device, they discovered the damaged cells are not only difficult to recover but also cause neighbouring cells to quickly die.
"This so-called bystander killing effect in retina cone photoreceptors leads us to believe that once retina cells are severely damaged, the killing effect will spread to other healthy cells which can cause irrevocable damage," said Qin.
"What surprised us was how quickly the killing effect progressed in the experimental model. Damage went from 100 cells to 10,000 cells in 24 hours," Qin said.
The researchers loaded and tested cells with micro-needles in an open dish so they could tailor the neural network device, study individual cells as well as the progression of drugs through the platforms many channels.
Retinal degeneration is a leading cause of blindness that, together with glaucoma, retinitis pigmentosa, and age-related macular degeneration, will affect 196 million people worldwide in 2020, researchers said.