Bioengineered corneas have restored the vision of 20 people, 14 of whom were blind before they received the implant. It’s still early days, but the hope is that this method could provide an alternative to donated human corneas, which are in scarce demand.
The new study appears in the journal Nature Biotechnology this week.
Scientists from Linköping University in Sweden made the bioengineered corneas out of collagen molecules derived from pig skin. Since this is a by-product of the food industry, it’s a low-cost material that’s readily available. Furthermore, they can be stored for up to two years after being made, as opposed to human donor corneas which need to be used within a couple of weeks.
“We’ve made significant efforts to ensure that our invention will be widely available and affordable by all and not just by the wealthy. That’s why this technology can be used in all parts of the world”, Mehrdad Rafat, lead study author from the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Linköping University, said in a statement.
To test out the viability of their bioengineered corneas, the team provided them to surgeons in Iran and India, two countries where there’s hot demand for corneas due to high levels of blindness and a lack of treatment options.
The trial involved 20 people with keratoconus, a condition where the eye's cornea becomes too thin or loses its round shape, resulting in impaired vision. Fourteen of these patients were blind before the operation, while the remaining few were on the verge of losing their sight or had severely impaired vision.
The surgery is designed to be as non-invasive as possible. It involves making a small incision in the cornea using a laser (although the cut can be made by hand using simple surgical instruments if needs be) and inserting the transplanted cornea underneath the existing cornea. The patients are then simply given immunosuppressive eye drops and the job is done.
Two years after the surgery, the researchers said there were no complications. They also noted that three of the participants who had been blind prior to the surgery had 20/20 vision after the operation.
More work is needed before this becomes a widely available option. This will involve larger clinical studies, regulatory approval, and so on. Nevertheless, the researchers are optimistic about their research and believe it could provide an easy, low-cost alternative to donated human corneas.
“The results show that it is possible to develop a biomaterial that meets all the criteria for being used as human implants, which can be mass-produced and stored up to two years and thereby reach even more people with vision problems. This gets us around the problem of shortage of donated corneal tissue and access to other treatments for eye diseases”, added Neil Lagali, study author and professor at the Department of Biomedical and Clinical Sciences at Linköping University.