Researchers have created the most advanced artificial cornea ever using 3D printing and human stem cells. The technology, if successfully developed, could help millions of people around the world see a clearer future.
The cornea is the protective, clear outer layer covering the eye. When it’s damage, it creates serious vision problems or can cause blindness. Currently, people with damaged corneas hope for healthy corneas transplants from deceased donors, but the need far exceeds the supply.
Enter the artificial corneas developed by engineers from Newcastle University, detailed in a paper published in Experimental Eye Research. The 3D printed corneas are not easy to develop: first, there’s the problem of distinctive curved shape of the human cornea. Researchers used a special camera to photograph a volunteer’s eyeballs to create 3D model, the first time that the cornea shape has been printed. Next, scientists need to create an ink thin enough to filter through a 3D printer, but firm enough to maintain a 3D shape. To get the right texture, researchers created a bioink using stem cells from donor corneas, adding it to alginate (a jelly-like goo) and collagen (ropy proteins). The result looks something like a contact lens, but can do a lot more to repair vision.
Artificial corneas will still require actual cornea donations, but they’ll be able to make each cornea donation go a lot farther. Instead of replacing one damaged cornea with a healthy one, scientists would be able to grow enough cells from one donated cornea to print 50 artificial ones.