Scientists just 3D printed human corneas for the first time giving hope to thousands of people with visual impairments

Having lost my own vision while at university, I know all too well how debilitating poor eyesight can be, so being able to “regrow” fundamental parts of the eye could be a gamechanger. 

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 One of the most important of these is the cornea, responsible for focusing vision. According to the World Health Organisation, corneal blindness is the fourth leading cause of blindness globally, so it’s pretty worrying to note there’s currently a transplant shortage in the UK.

However, a breakthrough study from scientists at Newcastle University may have solved this problem by 3D printing human corneas in the lab, for the first time. 

In the study, published in the journal Experimental Eye Research, the scientists mixed human corneal stromal stem cells from a human donor together with alginate – a gel derived from seaweed – and collagen to create a “bio-ink” solution. Then, using a 3D printer, the bio-ink was extruded to make concentric circles and effectively create a cornea. What’s more, the process only took the team ten minutes to complete. 

“Many teams across the world have been chasing the ideal bio-ink to make this process feasible,” Che Common, professor of tissue engineering at Newcastle University and lead author of the study said. “Our unique gel keeps the stem cells alive whilst producing a material which is stiff enough to hold its shape but soft enough to be squeezed out the nozzle of a 3D printer.”

By scanning the patient’s eye, the scientists can 3D print a cornea that’s the same size and shape of their own eye. 

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So when can we see this technology be put into use? Not for several years, unfortunately. According to Professor Common, “3D printed corneas will now have to undergo further testing”.

The worldwide shortage in corneas has been a result of the popular uptake of laser eye surgery. People who have undergone laser eye surgery to improve short-sightedness are no longer able to donate their corneas for transplant.

 

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