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Tech

Human corneas 3D printed in research breakthrough

02/07/2018
UK researchers have developed a technique they say can be used in future to ensure an unlimited supply of corneas for transplant.

It’s estimated more than 10 million people worldwide currently require surgery to prevent corneal blindness as a result of diseases such as trachoma, while a further five million suffer total blindness due to corneal scarring caused by burns, lacerations, abrasion or disease.

3D printer for cornea with Professor Che Connon
3D printer for cornea with Professor Che Connon

However, a team from Newcastle University led by Professor Che Connon, has developed a way of mixing human corneal stromal cells from a healthy donor with alginate and collagen to create a ‘bio-ink’ solution that can be 3D printed.

According to the researchers, they were able to use a simple low-cost 3D bio-printer to extrude the bio-ink successfully in concentric circles to form the shape of a human cornea. The process took less than 10 minutes to print, after which the stem cells were shown to culture.

“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,” Connon said.

Dr. Steve Swioklo with a dyed cornea.
Dr. Steve Swioklo with a dyed cornea.

“This builds upon our previous work in which we kept cells alive for weeks at room temperature within a similar hydrogel. Now we have a ready to use bio-ink containing stem cells allowing users to start printing tissues without having to worry about growing the cells separately.”

The study also demonstrated that the scientists were able to produce a cornea that would match a patient’s unique specifications, by using a scan from a patient’s eye to recreate its dimensions in their 3D-printed tissue.

The 3D printed corneas will need to undergo several years of further testing before they are potentially able to be used for transplants.

Image courtesy: Newcastle University, UK

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