Technology has once again come to the rescue—this time to in hopes of providing artificial corneas for the nearly five million people worldwide who have lost vision due to infection-related corneal scarring.1 Conventional replacement of corneal tissue is limited by the scarcity of human donor grafts relative to need.

Researchers at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom recently engineered a viable artificial cornea using a 3D bioprinting process. They first created the material with a collagen-based bio-ink containing encapsulated corneal keratocytes from donor corneas. “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,” said Che Connon, PhD, professor of Tissue Engineering at Newcastle University, who led the work, in a press release.2,3

They then scanned a volunteer’s cornea to create a template for the 3D bioprinter—proof they may one day be able to fabricate corneas unique to each patient.

The result, in less than 10 minutes, was a corneal structure “that resembled the structure of the native human corneal stroma,” the study said.2,3 They found the keratocytes had high cell viability both at day one post-printing (>90%) and at day seven (83%), lending even more support to the technology’s promise.2

“Our 3D printed corneas will now have to undergo further testing and it will be several years before we could be in the position where we are using them for transplants,” said Dr. Connon in the press release. “However, what we have shown is that it is feasible to print corneas using coordinates taken from a patient eye and that this approach has potential to combat the world-wide shortage.”

1. Witcher J, Srinivasan M, Upadhyay MP. Corneal blindness: A global perspective. Bulletin of the World Health Organization. 2001;79(3):214-21.
2. Isaacson A, Swioklo S, Connon CJ. 3D bioprinting of a corneal stroma equivalent. Experimental Eye Research. May 30, 2018. [Epub ahead of print].
3. Newcastle University. First 3D printed human corneas. Press Office. May 30, 2018. Accessed May 31, 2018.