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Aussie-engineered cornea aims to succeed where others failed

Electromaterials experts are working with Sydney ophthalmologist Professor Gerard Sutton to develop a bioengineered cornea and supporting collagen fibres to overcome two major issues with corneal transplantation.

The ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science (ACES) at the University of Wollongong is collaborating with Sutton to develop the cornea, which centres on an electro-compaction technique.

It is hoped the cornea, which can be bioprinted with living cells, may overcome two limitations with corneal blindness and transplantation; a lack of tissue (one cornea available for every 70 patients worldwide), and the risk of corneal rejection that can result in permanent blindness.

ACES director Professor Gordon Wallace said collagen had been identified as a critical factor in the success of the technique.

Professor Gordon Wallace (left) and Professor Gerard Sutton. Image: ACES.

“Collagen can provide a cell-friendly, anti-inflammatory environment that can promote cell proliferation in the eye,” he said.

“While the base composition and molecular structure of collagen provide the biological attributes, it is the highly organised structure that retains these properties and contributes to the transparency and mechanical strength of the cornea – quite a demanding set of properties in one material.”

Wallace said the ACES team had used electro-compaction to achieve the combination of properties, which has resulted in “beautifully aligned collagen fibres, and bringing us one step closer to bioengineered corneas”.

Sutton, from the University of Sydney and medical director of the Lions NSW Eye Bank, said the need for a bioengineered cornea is significant and will impact blindness in countries that need it most.

“While there have been attempts to bioengineer a cornea before, they have failed mainly because of a lack of durability and strength,” he said.

“Our bioengineered cornea is strengthened through electro-compaction and still maintains excellent and critical optical properties. In addition, it can be bioprinted with living cells.”

He added: “If successful it will mean that the many people suffering corneal blindness will not have to wait for someone to die to receive a sight-restoring cornea. They will be able to order one of the ready-made products off the shelf, or even one that is customised specifically for their eye.”

Preliminary testing has shown the appropriate corneal cells can be incorporated during the electro-compaction process without significantly decreasing cell viability.