Medicine

United Kingdom researchers first to 3D-print human corneas

United Kingdom researchers first to 3D-print human corneas

The unmet clinical need for cornea donors has led to increasing effort in the development of artificial corneal substitutes, which must meet specific criteria if they are to functionally mimic the native cornea. Now around 10 million people worldwide require surgery to prevent corneal blindness as a result of diseases such as trachoma, an infectious eye disorder.

In major breakthrough scientists have 3D printed the thin protective layer over the eye, called the cornea, using human cells.

What is the function of the cornea?

The transparent area at the front of our eyes covering the iris and pupil is called the cornea. The tissues of the cornea are organized into five layers which serve their own functions. They mixed the cornea stem cells with two different chemical components, alginate and collagen, to create "bio-ink". The researchers used a low-priced bio-printer as well as bio-ink, which consists of stem cells from the donor of a healthy cornea, collagen and salts of alginic acids (derived from seaweed), thus producing a material hard enough to retain the shape but also soft enough to print. Building on previous work by the team showing stem cells can be kept alive for weeks at room temperature in a hydrogel similar to the bio-ink, the cells were shown to culture in the artificial cornea.

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What potential does the research have for medicine? This incredible feat of engineering was achieved by researchers at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, who hope that their work can help relieve the serious shortage of corneas available for transplant. But due to a significant shortage, there is a huge demand for donated corneas across nations. So, the team used a special camera to capture a volunteer's eyeball and create a 3D model of his cornea.

Connon's team also showed it could create a cornea that matches a patient's unique specifications. That data was then used to print a cornea to the exact shape and size needed.

When will the 3D-printed corneas be ready for use? "If we look more widely in less developed nations, eye-banking is poorly developed and an alterative that allows a rapid development of corneas, such as 3-D printing, would really be very useful".

Professor Connon added: "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".


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