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Scientists create the first 3D-printed cornea using human cells

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Scientists have developed an innovative method of 3D printed artificial corneas using human cells – a development that could help millions on the waiting list for a corneal transplant. Engadget reports that the research team led by Che Connon, Professor of Tissue Engineering at Newcastle University, was able to reproduce the most advanced artificial cornea in just 10 minutes using ‘bio-ink’ – a printable solution developed by the team. The solution, ‘bio-ink’ was created by combining collagen with alginate (a tissue-generating type of sugar) and healthy corneal stem cells.

The corner is a thin protective film found on the outmost layer of the human eye. It protects the eye from bacteria and dust while also helping us to focus an image which eventually travels to the back of the eye, retina. This makes the cornea vulnerable to infections and damage – that can lead to blindness. Currently, damaged corneas are only replaced using healthy ones from deceased donors, which is not enough for people waiting for a transplant. World Health Organization reports that cornea infection is the reason why approximately 5 million people are blind around the world, today.

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. The unique gel didn’t have to be soft alone. It also needed to support 3D printed structure by being stiff enough. For this consistency, our research team combined stem cells extracted from donor corneas and alginate – jelly-like goo with collagen – ropy proteins, according to The Verge.

Production of 3D Printed Cornea

The researchers performed series of scan to patients’ eyes to establish the right coordinates and necessary dimensions before printing the artificial corneas. However, the production of 3D printed corneas for human use may still take some time, several years, perhaps. But it marks an incredible hope for patients with very severe corneal-related impairments.

The 3D-bioprinting method did not annul a need for cornea donations. A donor cornea is also necessary for making the recipe – extracting the stem cells. But the good news is that with one donor, the technique can replicate many corneas, according to Connon. Cornea transplant would no longer mean one donor to a patient. One donated cornea could be used to print as many as 50 artificial corneas.

A special camera was used by the researchers to image the eyeball of a volunteer from which a 3D model of their cornea was created. This was the only means to know exactly what to print. A generated template was fed to a 3D printer, which bio-inked the solution into a supportive Jello bed to create a cornea replica.

At the moment, the research team is fine-tuning the printing process of these artificial corneas before it could be fitted into a human eyeball. Connon says the artificial corneas will also be subjected to safety study using animals. However, the study has established that 3D printers can produce objects like the human corneas with mostly the same constituents. It’s a key research for developing useable artificial corneas in the future, Connon said.

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