These new 3D-printed corneas could help 15 million people see again

A team of English researchers have developed a novel piece of biotechnology that could wind up helping millions get their eyesight back.


It’s another marvel of three-dimensional printing, using stem cells, collagen, and a type of polysaccharide called alginate to create a so-called “bio-ink” that can be used to print a cornea.

It’s not yet on the market, but if approved it would constitute a breakthrough in the field of corneal transplantation, which currently relies on a slow process in addition to there not being enough available corneas to return sight to the 15 million people worldwide estimated as needing the procedure. It will also add to the list of cool things humans can now 3D print, right alongside moon rings, guitars, and legs for our pets.

The cornea, which is located on the outermost section of the eye, serves as a protective wall to keep out dust, bacteria, and other tiny items. It can be scarred, though, by infections and damage from foreign objects.

As the scientists have explained, the trick all along was figuring out how to create a gel in which the stem cells could thrive, grow, hold their proper shape, and be pushed through the nozzle of a 3D printer successfully. By scanning a person’s eye, the researchers say they are able to print a cornea to the proper dimensions in about 10 minutes. Their work was published this month in the journal Experimental Eye Research.

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“Our 3D printed corneas will now have to undergo further testing and it will be several years before we could be in the position where we are using them for transplants,” the researchers say in a release. “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 worldwide shortage.”

 

The impact of the work could reshape the field. Currently, the cost of a cornea transplant for someone without health insurance in the US generally costs between $13,000 and $28,000. It’s an expensive but important procedure for the part of the eye most susceptible to damage.

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