Scientists printed 3D printed corneas for the first time in new research, offering hope to the million people around the world whose vision is affected by tissue damage.
Often described as the window to the eye, the cornea is a transparent sheath that sits on the iris and pupil, which helps direct the rays of light onto the retina. If the cornea is damaged, the image sent to the brain may become blurred. Currently, patients with damaged corneas can undergo transplants in severe cases, but this requires a donor, of which there is a significant shortage. Around the world, some 10 million people need surgery to prevent corneal blindness, while another 5 million are totally blind because the tissue is damaged or diseased.
Now, a team from the University of Newcastle in the United Kingdom believes that it has paved the way for an unlimited supply of corneas, using a 3-D printer to create them in a laboratory.
The researchers took corneal stem cells from a healthy donor and mixed them with alginate and collagen to create a printable "bio-ink". This solution was placed inside a simple 3-D printer.
Scientists created a "bio-ink" for print human corneas in 3-D. Getty Images
Scientists were able to print a 3-D cornea in less than ten minutes. Based on the team's previous work showing that stem cells can be kept alive for weeks at room temperature in a hydrogel similar to bio-ink, it was shown that the cells are cultured in the artificial cornea. Because corneas are easily printable, they can be created to match the size and shape of a patient's eye.
The first one is the one that is printed with a curved shape, since the previous versions had layers of cells, Che Connon, professor of Tissue Engineering at the University of Newcastle and main author of the study Newsweek. The resulting document was published in the journal Experimental Eye Research .
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"Many teams around the world have been pursuing the ideal bio-ink to make this process feasible," commented Professor Connon it's a statement.
"Our exclusive gel, a combination of alginate and collagen, keeps stem cells alive while producing a material that is stiff enough to maintain its shape but soft enough to be ejected through the mouthpiece of a printer 3- D.  "We now have a ready-to-use bio-ink containing stem cells that allows users to start printing tissues without having to worry about growing the cells separately."
Professor Connon said Newsweek that despite well-organized eye bank systems in developed countries, health professionals struggle to meet demand. "This is partly due to the increasing use of refractive surgery [laser eye] and eyes that have undergone refractive surgery can not currently be used for transplant. If we look more widely in the less developed nations, the banking eyes are underdeveloped and an alterative that allows the rapid development of corneas, such as 3D printing, would be really very useful. "
Professor Connon predicts that the technology could be available in a minimum of five years, if clinical trials are successful.
"We are thinking of a situation where a doctor's surgery has a 3-D printer in the corner, and a doctor can take out an ink from the shelf, plug it in and print it "
Updated | Added a comment by Professor Che Connon.