Scientists at Newcastle University have, for the first time, successfully 3D printed human corneas using a unique gel. The cornea is the outermost layer of the human eye, with a key role in focusing vision.
There are currently around 10 million people worldwide in need of surgery to prevent corneal blindness, which results from diseases such as trachoma – an infectious eye disorder. Another 5 million are already blind due to corneal scarring from burns, lacerations, abrasion or disease.
There is a major shortfall of corneas available to transplant. This new technique could potentially be used to produce an unlimited supply of corneas.
The Newcastle team conducted proof-of-concept research, the resulting reports show how stem cells (human corneal stromal cells) from a healthy donor cornea were mixed together with alginate and collagen to create a solution that could be printed, a ‘bio-ink’.
The researchers used a basic low-cost 3D bio-printer, to successfully extrude the bio-ink in concentric circles to form the shape of a human cornea. Print time was under 10 minutes. The stem cells were then shown to culture or grow.
By scanning the patient’s eye, the team demonstrated that it could create a cornea to match a patient’s unique specifications. This enabled accurate rapid printing of a cornea.
Che Connon, Professor of Tissue Engineering at Newcastle University, who led the work, said: “Many teams across the world have been chasing the ideal bioink to make this process feasible. 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”.
This method has huge potential to combat the worldwide shortage of corneas. However, further tests will now be needed, prior to the technique being used for transplants.