For those suffering from corneal eye disease or injury, the world can be a very dark and blurry place. A breakthrough at Britain’s Newcastle University where researchers have developed a process to 3D print a human cornea now offers hope to millions.
The cornea, the clear covering over the front of the eye, protects the eye and is critical to the ability to focus and refract light. When injury, disease or genetic conditions damage the cornea, vision can be severely impaired. In some cases, blindness occurs.
In the past, the most common treatment was a cornea transplant using a healthy cornea from a donor. However, the high incidence of laser eye surgery over the past few decades has resulted in many fewer donors with unaltered, healthy corneas.
With an estimated 10 million people around the globe who could benefit from a cornea transplant, researchers have been working to find a way to provide the needed corneas using 3D print technology. The team at Newcastle University is now the first to successfully 3D print a human cornea.
Led by Dr. Stephen Swioklo, Professor Che J. Connon and Abigail Isaacson Ph.D., the team first had to develop a viable bio-ink. By combining stroma stem cells from a healthy cornea with alginate, a gum-like substance extracted from seaweed and algae, the team developed a promising bio-ink. Next, precise measurements of a human cornea were scanned into a digital printer. The final step was to print the cornea with the bio-ink.
The process shows promise. After one day, 90 percent of the corneal stem cells, or keratocytes, remained viable and at the end of day seven, 83 percent had not degraded.
The Newcastle University researchers are not the first to attempt using 3D print technology to solve the cornea shortage in the world, but their success will likely lead many others to enhance and improve on their efforts. While further testing and clinical trials are required before 3D printed corneas become an accepted treatment, the light is shining on those waiting in the dark for a corneal transplant.