3D-Printed Human Corneas Are Now a Reality


In a first, scientists have created 3D printed human corneas that could solve the shortage of available eye donors and help millions of blind people gain sight again. Outlined in the eye research, the process mixes stem cells from a healthy donor cornea with alginate to create a bio-ink that is extruded from a low-priced 3D bio-printer in concentric circles to form a human cornea.

In addition, the Newcastle research team also showed that they could 3D print a cornea that would match the unique specifications from a patient. The researchers scanned the patient's eye, and were then able to use the scan data to quickly 3D print a cornea that matched the shape and size of the patient's actual cornea.

Although these 3D-printed corneas won't be ready for use in transplants for another few years and need "to undergo further testing", Connon pointed out they are nevertheless an enormous breakthrough.

Professor John Snowden, director of blood and bone marrow transplantation at Sheffield's Royal Hallamshire Hospital, said: "We are thrilled with the results - they are a game changer for patients with drug resistant and disabling multiple sclerosis".

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The university said that this procedure could tackle a significant shortage of corneas available to transplant and may benefit millions of people worldwide requiring corneal surgery to prevent blindness. To get the right consistency, the researchers added a jelly like goo called alginate and stem cells extracted from donor corneas, along with some ropy proteins called collagen. The solution creates a bio-ink solution that can be used in a 3D printer.

The corneas take ten minutes to print on a cheap 3D printer, a vast improvement on previous efforts. With a simple and cheap 3D bio-printer, scientists have successfully managed to print the forms that are maximally similar to the human cornea. According to the study, published in Experimental Eye Research, the keratocytes exhibited high cell viability both at day one post-printing ( 90 per cent) and at day 7 (83 per cent). The infectious eye disorder Trachoma can also affect the cornea, causing blindness. It is assumed that the use of these keratocytes should contribute to the reconstruction of the extracellular matrix of the cornea.

"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 United Kingdom", he explained.

Finding the precise recipe for an ink that's stiff enough to maintain its shape and flexible to be squeezed through nozzle was tricky, Connon said.