Geeks n Gadgets
Scientists have recently 3D printed the most advanced, artificial cornea (the transparent layer at the front of the eye) using human cells. This medical breakthrough is currently in the testing stage, however, it is foreseen that in the near future these artificial corneas will offer millions of people the miracle of sight.
“It was tricky to find the right recipe for an ink that’s thin enough to squirt through a 3D printer’s nozzle,” stated Che Connon, a tissue engineer at Newcastle University, who was part of the team of scientists that invented the artificial cornea. To make the ink consistent, stem cells extracted from donor corneas are combined with collagen proteins. The cornea is the first lens light travels through before reaching the retina at the back of the eye. Damage to the cornea can distort vision or even lead to blindness. ‘Nearly five million people around the world are blind because infection scarred their corneas’ (World Health Organisation, 2019). Currently, damaged corneas are replaced with those of deceased donors, however, there are not nearly enough donated corneas to compensate for everyone affected.
This new concept, termed Experimental Eye Research, does not eliminate the need for donors; the donation of corneas is vital for this new medical procedure, as stem cells are needed to make the ink for the 3D printer. Experimental Eye Research takes donations of corneas further; instead of replacing one damaged cornea with a donor’s one, 50 artificial corneas can be printed using a single cornea as stem cells can be artificially grown.
“Without the shape, you don’t have a cornea- you have something else”: Che Connon, tissue engineer.
The research team at Newcastle University photographed a volunteer’s eyeball to fabricate a 3D model of a cornea. This enabled them to create a template to feed through the 3D printer based off the shape of a human cornea.
Although this artificial cornea is a significant medical breakthrough, there is still a long journey before these 3D printed corneas come close to a human eyeball. The printing process has to be fine-tuned and safety tests will have to be undergone. This advancement is proof that it is possible to 3D print something that looks like a human cornea and that has a similar makeup. It is also the first time the distinctive, curved shape of a cornea has been artificially created. The scientists at Newcastle University have made an advancement that will lead to restoring millions of peoples’ sight.