Scientists have published 3D printed corneas for the first time in new research that gives hope to millions of people around the world whose vision is compromised by damage to the delicate tissues.
Often described as the window to the eye, the cornea is a clear envelope that sits over the iris and pupil, helping to direct light rays to the retina. When the cornea becomes damaged, the image sent to the brain may blur. Currently, patients with damaged cornea can undergo transplants in severe cases, but this requires a donor of whom there is a significant deficiency. Worldwide, about 10 million people need surgery to prevent corneal blindness, while another 5 million are completely blind because the tissue is damaged or diseased.
Now, a team from Newcastle University in the UK believes that this has paved the way for an unlimited supply of corneas with a 3D printer to create in a lab.
The researchers took corneal stem cells from a healthy donor and mixed them together with alginate and collagen to create a printable "biotin"
The scientists were able to print a 3D cornea in less than ten minutes. Building on earlier work by the team demonstrating that stem cells can be kept alive for weeks at room temperature in a hydrogel similar to biotin, it has been shown that the cells are cultured in the artificial cornea. Because the cornea is easily printable, it can be made to match the size and shape of a patient's eye. The resulting work was published in the journal Experimental Eye Research .
"Many teams around the world are pursuing the ideal biotin to make this process workable," said Che Connon, professor of tissue engineering at Newcastle University and lead author of the study, commented in a statement.
"Our unique gel – a combination of alginate and collagen – keeps the stem cells alive and produces a material that is stiff enough to hold it soft enough to squeeze out the nozzle of a 3D printer.
"Now we have a ready-to-use biotin with stem cells that allows users to print tissue without having to worry about growing them separately. "
But the technology is far from being rolled out.
" Our 3D printed corneas need further testing now, and it will be several more years before we can be in the position where we use them for Transplants, "said Professor Connon.