This is not science fiction. In breaking news, scientists working in Newcastle University have discovered a way to build a cornea using 3D bioprinting.
Read on to discover how this extraordinary research could save you from blindness.
A future cure for blindness
The cornea is the clear outer layer of the eye that allows us to see. For decades, corneal transplantation has been the mainstay of surgical treatment for people with keratoconus, burning or other corneal damage.
Donor corneas have been the traditional tissue used in corneal graft. These donated corneas are carefully collected and stored by centres such as the Sydney Eye Hospital Eye Bank and used to replace diseased tissue in people with burns, damage or disease of their corneas. But donor corneas are in short supply, with demand far greater than what centres like the Eye Bank can supply. Another limitation is that any transplant surgery comes with the risk of graft rejection.
3D cornea bio-printing
To get around the issues of undersupply and graft rejection, scientists and tissue engineers have been working for years on producing an artificial cornea. To date, however, this hasn’t translated into a successful treatment for keratoconus and other corneal disease. A successful cure has yet to become available.
But emerging 3D bioprinting technology now appears to offer a real alternative. A study published earlier this week in Experimental Eye Research details a new technique for printing corneal tissue using 3D bioprinters. The research was conducted at the Institute of Genetic Medicine in Newcastle University (UK). Drs Isaacson, Swioklo and Connon used their innovative bio-ink, which is made from collagen and corneal cells, to ‘print’ a cornea based on human models.
How does it work?
- First, the human cornea is scanned and mapped and a digital model is created and exported to the 3D printer.
- Bio-ink, made from a collagen hydrogel and cornea stem cells, is loaded into the bio-printing cartridge and the new cornea is printed based on the customised digital model mapped form the human eye.
- A cornea-shaped scaffold is built up by layering bio-ink in concentric circles.
- Stem cells are contained in the bio-ink and they are nurtured in a carefully controlled environment so they can thrive and create a viable cornea.
When will this be available?
This is just the first step on the road to saving vision. The research will prompt animal and human trials to demonstrate the safety and effectiveness of 3D bio-printing. So, it will be several more years before this technology is available to patients with corneal problems.
It is hoped that this technology, if proven to be safe and effective, could transform the lives of millions of people who currently suffer from blindness due to cornea damage or scarring. It is now possible to print a cornea using a scan taken from a human eye.
What are the other applications of this technology?
This is not the first time that bio-ink has been used to treat eye disease. A Sydney Eye Hospital team led by Professor Gerard Sutton recently won the prestigious ‘The Big idea’ research funding challenge for their BioPen. This device also uses bio-ink to treat injury to the surface of the eye.
The pen, which is loaded with a bio-ink made from stem cells and other biomaterial, is used to ‘colour in’ the damaged area, thus repairing it. Bio-ink is likely to have broader applications both in the eye and the rest of the body in promoting healing and building new tissues.
Struggling with your keratoconus? Talk to the experts. Call The Eye Practice on (02) 9290 1899 or make an appointment online.