Progress for new corneal disease treatment

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Dr Berkay Ozcelik holding the specially developed hydrogel film

A new corneal disease treatment said to be more effective than a corneal transplant is set to progress to human trials next year.

A University of Melbourne-led team of researchers claim they have successfully restored vision in animal trials using a tissue engineered corneal endothelium graft.

The patented technique involves seeding a specially developed synthetic polymer hydrogel film with corneal endothelial cells. 

Dr Berkay Ozcelik, an honorary post-doctoral fellow at the University of Melbourne, was part of the team that developed the synthetic film at the university’s Polymer Science Group in conjunction with the Centre for Eye Research Australia.

“The hydrogel film we have developed allows us to grow a layer of corneal cells in the laboratory,” Dr Ozcelik explained. “Then, we can implant that film on the inner surface of a patient’s cornea, within the eye, via a very small incision.”

Once the graft is in place, the cultured cells restore the function of the corneal endothelium, reversing the swelling and cloudiness that lead to vision deterioration and blindness following corneal dysfunction. 

The hydrogel film is said to be thinner than a human hair (50µm) and transparent when implanted. It allows the flow of water between the cornea and the interior of the eye and completely biodegrades within two months without causing any adverse immune reactions.

The new technology arguably offers a solution to the current limitations to endothelial keratoplasty (EK), the standard treatment for corneal endothelial dysfunction, which replaces the affected endothelial layer of the cornea with portions of a donor cornea. 

While more than 2,000 of these corneal transplants are conducted in Australia each year, there is currently a global shortage of donated corneas. In addition, tissue rejection is said to be one of the most common causes of repeat EK procedures, accounting for about one in four corneal transplants, and patients can also show cultural or individual aversion to donor transplants.

“We believe that our new treatment performs better than a donated cornea, and we hope to eventually use the patient’s own cells, reducing the risk of rejection,” Dr Ozcelik said. “Further trials are required but we hope to see the treatment trialled in patients next year.”

Dr Ozcelik was recently named the Victorian winner of Fresh Science, a national competition designed to help early-career researchers progress and share their work, for his involvement in the corneal film project.