Incredible news is coming from Newcastle University in the UK, where researchers have managed to 3D print the first real human corneas in the world. The availability of corneas for transplantations is very low nowadays, so this printing technique can be groundbreaking. It could mean an unlimited supply of corneal tissue in the future.
What is cornea exactly? It is our eye’s outer, protective layer that helps in focusing vision. According to statistics, around 10 million people in the world need surgery to prevent blindness due to diseases on the cornea such as the infectious eye disorder trachoma. What’s more, another 5 million people are completely blind because of corneal scarring due to abrasion, lacerations, burns, or disease.
A report published in Experimental Eye Research describes the process of creating a bio-ink – a solution that can be printed. Namely, human corneal stromal cell or stem cells from a healthy cornea donor were combined with collagen and alginate. With the help of a simple, low-cost 3D bio-printer, the solution was successfully extruded in concentric circles to form the human cornea shape. This process lasts around five minutes. The human corneal stromal cells were then shown to grow or culture.
Here’s what Prof. of Tissue Engineering at Newcastle University, Che Connon, said about the whole thing:
Many teams across the world have been chasing the ideal bio-ink to make this process feasible. 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. This builds upon our previous work in which we kept cells alive for weeks at room temperature within a similar hydrogel. Now we have a ready to use bio-ink containing stem cells allowing users to start printing tissues without having to worry about growing the cells separately.
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. However, 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 worldwide shortage.
The research also showed that the team could create a cornea to match the unique specifications of each patient. They do this by scanning the eyes of the patient and using the information to quickly print a cornea that matches the shape and size.
Only a few years ago, these artificial corneas that can improve so many people’s lives were unimaginable. Once the technology is perfected, they could restore the sight to millions of partially blind or totally blind people. A 3D printed cornea can give people back the gift of eyesight, and that’s really incredible.
According to the director of research, policy, and innovation at Fight for Sight, Dr. Neil Ebenezer:
We are delighted at the success of researchers at Newcastle University in developing 3D printing of corneas using human tissue. 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. 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.
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