Two researchers at Newcastle University created the world's first 3D-printed human corneas. The durable yet flexible combination can reportedly be turned into the outer lens of the eye, which light passes through on its way to the retina in less than 10 minutes.
That said, it's an unbelievable first step towards a solution, and could eventually give us an unlimited supply of corneas for transplant, anywhere in the world. It's very important for vision as you'd expect, but roughly 10 million people around the world require surgery to prevent corneal blindness and a further five million are blind due to corneal scarring. To get the right consistency, the researchers added a jelly like goo called alginate and stem cells extracted from donor corneas, along with some ropy proteins called collagen.
Once printed, the ink forms a scaffold for the included stem cells to grow and form the final cornea which can then be transplanted on to the eye.
Newcastle University researchers have successfully produced artificial corneas using a low-priced 3D bio-printer and a gel formed from human corneal stromal cells, alginate and collagen. This material is based on previous work, in which the team developed a similar hydrogel that could keep cells alive for weeks at a time.
The researchers are now ready to use bio-ink containing stem cells, which will allow printing tissues without having to worry about growing the cells separately, Connon said. The artificial corneas can be created to match someone's exact size and shape specifications by simply scanning the patient's eye.
The 3D-printed corneas will have to undergo a lot of testing, probably over the span of a few years, before they'll even be considered for use in transplants, the team explains.
They used a mix of human corneal stromal (stem) cells harvested from donated healthy corneas, alginate, and collagen to create a firm but printable bio-ink. Gelatinous and multicellular, the artificial corneas are valuable steps towards much needed solutions for the millions of people suffering from eye disease and severe damage around the world.
For transplantation, corneas are harvested within 24 hours from death by trained professionals and stored in eye banks.
Che Connon, professor of tissue engineering at Newcastle University, praised the medical breakthrough for utilising cheap materials in the process.
The 3D-bioprinting method did not annul a need for cornea donations.
This bio-ink didn't just have to be thin but also had to be stiff enough that it could hold its shape as a 3D structure.