Scientists have used 3D printing technology to make the most advanced artificial corneas to date. Although the corneas are not yet ready for use in human eyes, the technique could be used to cure corneal blindness if the technology is improved.
The cornea, the transparent outer layer of the eye that protects the iris and pupil, helps regulate and focus light entering the eye. Damage to the cornea due to burns, infection or physical trauma can cause vision problems and lead to total blindness. Currently, more than 5 million people worldwide suffer from blindness due to corneal scarring, with another 10 million awaiting surgery to prevent the condition.
Although doctors are able to conduct cornea transplants, there are not enough donated corneas to treat all those in need. Newcastle University scientists have found a way to address this shortage by reducing the number of donated corneas needed.
The team created a bio-ink suitable for 3D printing by mixing collagen and a gelatinous substance called alginate with stem cells taken from a healthy donor cornea. Their findings were published on Wednesday in Experimental Eye Research.
“Many teams across the world have been chasing the ideal bio-ink to make this process feasible,” Che Connon professor of tissue engineering at Newcastle University, said in a statement.
Connon, who led the work, added: “Our unique gel – a combination of alginate and collagen – keeps the stem cells alive whilst producing a material which is stiff enough to hold its shape but soft enough to be squeezed out the nozzle of a 3D printer.”
The artificial corneas take less than ten minutes to print. Researchers say the technique could be applied to “ensure an unlimited supply of corneas;” however, the corneas are not ready to be rolled out yet.
“Our 3D printed corneas will now have to undergo further testing and it will be several years before we could be in the position where we are using them for transplants,” said Connon. “What we have shown is that it is feasible to print corneas using coordinates taken from a patient eye and that this approach has potential to combat the world-wide shortage.”
Dr Neil Ebenezer, director of research, policy and innovation at Fight for Sight, agreed that the discovery shows promise for future cornea transplants.
“This research highlights the significant progress that has been made in this area and this study is important in bringing us one step closer to reducing the need for donor corneas, which would positively impact some patients living with sight loss,” he said in a statement.
“However, it is important to note that this is still years away from potentially being available to patients and it is still vitally important that people continue to donate corneal tissue for transplant as there is a shortage within the UK.”