Scientists have made human corneas with a 3D printer for the first time ever at Newcastle University.
Researchers used human stem cells combined with collagen and alginate, which together turn into a strong gel, which could be used by a printer.
They say the technology could be used to produce an unlimited supply of corneas to combat a global shortage for people who need transplants.
The cornea is the transparent outer layer of the eye which helps focus the vision, but it can be damaged by infection, injury or health conditions.
Hundreds of donated corneas have to be imported into the UK every year for operations because so many British people are reluctant to donate their eyes to medicine after they die.
One of the scientists who developed the new technology said it needs more testing but it ‘has potential to combat the world-wide shortage’.
It took just 10 minutes to print the gel – called a bio-ink – in the shape of a cornea, and stem cells survived the process and continued to grow afterwards.
The human corneal stromal cells are mixed with collagen – the main component of human skin and blood vessels, and alginate – a natural carbohydrate found in seaweed and used to make gels.
This means the team have successfully created the first solution of its kind.
It is solid enough to hold its shape, soft enough to squeeze through the printer nozzle, and in which human stem cells can survive.
Ten million people worldwide are thought to need a corneal transplant to stop them going blind from disease, such as trachoma, an infection which roughens the inside of the eyelids.
In addition, millions of people are totally blind because of scarring on their cornea caused by burns, injuries or diseases.
Che Connon, Professor of Tissue Engineering at Newcastle University said: ‘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.
‘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.’
The scientists are able to make a unique cornea to match the size and shape of an individual’s eye.
Currently, cornea transplants are taken from dead volunteer donors on the organ donor list so are not tailor-made for the patient.
People can have a full or partial cornea transplant and more than 3,000 transplants are given each year in the UK. Read more