For the first time, scientists have 3D-printed human corneas in a lab, paving the way to potentially manufacturing this crucial part of our anatomy and saving millions from blindness caused by corneal damage. The cornea is an essential part of the eye, helping it to focus and protecting from the outside world. When damaged, it can create serious vision problems and often leads to blindness. Corneas can be transplanted but a shortage of healthy corneas from deceased donors means this development could not have come at a better time.
It is estimated that around 10 million people worldwide are awaiting a transplant to correct problems with their vision whilst another 5 million have lost their vision completely due to scarring of the cornea. Using a simple 3D bioprinter, a team from Newcastle University were able to combine healthy corneal stem cells from the patient with collagen and alginate (a sugar derived from seaweed frequently used in tissue regeneration) to create a “bio-ink” which can reproduce the shape of a human cornea in a few minutes. Using human stem cells, this method could potentially provide an inexhaustible supply of replacement corneas.
Researchers scan the patient’s eyes to establish the necessary coordinates and dimensions before printing the corneal replicas. The researchers expect it to be several years before this is perfected and readily available but progress continues to be made. This is a remarkable first step towards a solution that may eventually become a routine procedure.