Scientists at Newcastle University have managed to make artificial corneas using 3D printers.

The cornea – the outermost layer of the eye – plays an important role in focusing vision. It is possible to transplant donated corneas, but – with around 10 million people worldwide needing cornea surgery to rescue their eyesight – there is a shortage of such organs.

Approximately five million people around the world are totally blind because of corneal scarring caused by lacerations, burns, abrasion or disease.

An article by the Newcastle scientists, published in the journal Experimental Eye Research on 30th May, describes how they mixed stem cells from a healthy cornea with alginate and collagen to make a ‘bio-ink’ – an ink that can be ‘printed’.

Using a cheap 3D printer, the scientists then moulded the ink into a series of circles to form the shape of a human cornea – a process which took less than 10 minutes. The stem cells then grew inside the structure created.

The team were also able to adapt the corneas to fit the eyes of different patients.

Che Connon, a professor of tissue engineering at Newcastle University who led the project, said, “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 of 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 tissue 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’s eye and this approach has the potential to combat the worldwide shortage.”

Dr Neil Ebenezer, from the eye charity Fight for Sight, said, “We are delighted at the success of researchers at Newcastle University in developing 3D printing of corneas using human tissue.”

“This study is important in bringing us one step closer to reducing the need for donor corneas.”

“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.”

“A corneal transplant can give someone back the gift of sight.”

(Featured image courtesy of Renaud Torres, from Flickr Creative Commons.)

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