Researchers at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom have successfully created the first ever 3D-printed cornea, giving millions at risk of going blind new hope. However, its dimensions were taken from the original cornea at the beginning.
The new technique described in the journal Experimental Eye Research, doesn't completely eliminate a need for cornea donations.
The unique qualities of the "bio-ink" allowed the 3D printer to create a scaffold shaped like a human cornea in under six minutes, on which the stem cells then grow to produce the tissue needed for transplant.
"Many teams across the world have been chasing the ideal bio-ink to make this process feasible", said lead researcher Che Connon, a professor of tissue engineering at Newcastle University in England.
Previously, the same team had used a similar hydrogel to keep stem cells alive for weeks at room temperature. In the future, a simple scan of a patient's eye will enable doctors to print a cornea that perfectly matches the size and shape of their eyeballs. Connon said in a statement that the printed corneas will have to undergo several years of testing before they become a viable transplant option.
Yet there is a significant shortage of corneas available to transplant.
The cornea also focuses the light entering the eyes, being responsible for 65 to 75 percent of the eye's total focusing power.
The Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIBP) estimates more than two million people, or one in 30, in the United Kingdom live with sight loss. People can donate their corneas after they die, however, the demand now outweighs the supply. He also added that doctors could easily tailor the exact shape of the 3D-printed corneas through a 3D image or a set of coordinates.
The 3D-bioprinting method did not annul a need for cornea donations.
Other researchers have managed to print cartilage in 3D, a very promising method because this tissue cannot regenerate. This means that one donor cornea can help multiple patients. The bio-ink served as a solution used for 3D printing of complex tissue models.