Researchers Create First 3-D Printed Human Corneas

A new combination of cornea stem cells and a unique 3D printing gel could help restore sight to thousands of visually impaired people.

A research team from the UK could help bring sight back to thousands who have cornea-related issues. Scientists from Newcastle University say they've created the world's first 3D-printed human cornea. They combine unique printing techniques, cornea stem cells and a new bio ink to create corneas in just 10 minutes. 

"Many teams across the world have been chasing the ideal bio-ink to make this process feasible," explained Che Connon, professor of Tissue Engineering at Newcastle who led the development process. "Our unique gel - a combination of alginate and collagen - 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."

Connon explained that the gel was a continual work in progress, but it was one element the team definitely needed to get right. 

“This builds upon our previous work in which we kept cells alive for weeks at room temperature within a similar hydrogel," he said. "Now we have a ready to use bio-ink containing stem cells allowing users to start printing tissues without having to worry about growing the cells separately.”  

Cornea transplants are some of the most common ones in medicine, according to the U.S. National Eye Institute. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world undergo the procedure each year. However, this procedure is also one of the most critical in restoring sight to a visually impaired patient. The Newcastle team hopes their 3D printed cornea options can reduce the rates of transplant rejection. 

Dr Neil Ebenezer, director of research, policy and innovation at Fight for Sight, explained just how significant this new medical innovation could be. (Ebenezer was not involved in the development of this research.)

"We are delighted at the success of researchers at Newcastle University in developing 3D printing of corneas using human tissue," he said. "This research highlights the significant progress that has been made in this area and this study is important in bringing us one step closer to reducing the need for donor corneas, which would positively impact some patients living with sight loss."

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Unfortunately, this particular innovation is a few years from becoming a reality. Connon said in a statement that the printed corneas will have to undergo several years of testing before they become a viable transplant option. 

"However, what we have shown is that it is feasible to print corneas using coordinates taken from a patient eye and that this approach has potential to combat the world-wide shortage," Connon said.

And while Connon and his colleagues continue to perfect a sight-restoring piece of technology, UK residents are still encouraged to donate corneal tissue to help with the shortage in the area, Ebenezer said.

"It is important to note that this is still years away from potentially being available to patients and it is still vitally important that people continue to donate corneal tissue for transplant as there is a shortage within the UK," he explained.

"A corneal transplant can give someone back the gift of sight."

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